Keep Your Eye on the Prize – The Downside of Note Taking While Moderating
By: Jo Ann Hairston
If Quantitative Market Research (QTMR) tells us how many, then Qualitative Market Research (QLMR) tells us the drivers and motivations. It describes the details of the qualities and characteristics of a product, service, idea, or advertisement. It is descriptive and indicative, not predicative.
Qualitative research has some distinct characteristics including :
- it has a strong orientation to everyday life and events
- data is collected in their natural context; there is no attempt to change the research situation or control it
- the diversity of participant responses is valuable
- the role of the researcher is important: the ability of the researcher to reflect upon what he/she is seeing and/or hearing is part of the research process rather than something to be excluded
- data is gathered by flexible, open-ended methods; there is no rigid questionnaire or grid
Given these characteristics, the role of the moderator cannot be underestimated. Michael Quinn Patton states the moderator is the “instrument of research” rather than the survey document as used in QTMR.
The moderator needs to actively listen to the respondent to encourage the respondent to keep going and use non-committal prompts and probes to help the participant to elaborate and expand. That elaboration and further expression by the respondent is what adds the luster to QLMR. Contrasting with QTMR where interviewees are asked questions and then supplied with a list of answers to choose from, QLMR permits the participant to answer in his/her own words, allowing the moderator to do as much digging as necessary to expose the POBAs (perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes) that are driving the response. Moderators are seeking to uncover what the respondent means by what was said without any filters.
It makes sense then that the moderator needs to have his/her attention directly on the respondent and what is being said, as well as what is left unsaid, so that pertinent probes and follow up questions are inserted in a timely manner. The other place that can appropriately capture the moderator’s attention is on other respondents in order to know where the moderator should look next for agreement or counter opinions.
Taking notes and jotting down key phrases to go back and probe on later or good phrases that would be relevant in the final report is mis-timed. Interviewing respondents is the main job for the moderator. Thinking about and doing activities that will make the final report easier to write takes away from the key purpose of actively engaging with respondents in the moment to help create the fullest picture of POBAs possible. Analysis is best left to be done after groups have ended.
It takes mindful action to resist the desire to jot something interesting down in the moment it was said, but this behavior is reminiscent of school note-taking behavior. In fact, many people report that they don’t feel comfortable listening to someone else talk without having a pen in their hands. However, this is one of those instances that emphasize the difference between a qualitative interview and conversation between two people. In the interview, the focus should be on being clear about understanding what participants are saying and drawing them out.
Every time the moderator stops to make a note, it actively breaks the flow of the conversation. In that moment, all activity stops while the thought is transferred onto a piece of paper. Current research consistently states that people don’t multi-task nearly as well as they think they do and, in fact, may lose up to 40% in productivity when switching back and forth between two different activities. At RIVA, we believe that the best moderating occurs when the moderator makes the decision to “be with people and not with paper.” Focus group facilities invest a lot of money in audio systems that can clearly capture what is being said in the room. Even portable digital recorders make an accurate record for later review and analysis. Let the recording capture all the juicy thoughts for later review and resist the urge to multi-task by interviewing and note-taking at the same time. For many, the solution is to work with a separate note-taker and prep them to take notes in a style that supports easy transition to analysis and report writing.
Keep your eye on the prize: full and complete engagement in the QRE in the present and not on the final report.
 Flick U, von Kardoff E, Steinke I (2004) A Companion to Qualitative Research. Sage Publications, London