A Novel, Psycho-Sensory Approach to Qualitative Discussion Guide Development

by | Nov 17, 2014 | Uncategorized

If you’ve ever led a market research project, you’ve likely encountered this at some point: the kitchen sink dilemma. That’s the term one of my clients years ago affectionately used to refer to a project we worked on together (Jen, you know who you are). It was because, as the discussion guide evolved, the team kept adding and adding more questions than we could conceivably fit into a 60-minute discussion.

But in research – qualitative or quantitative – “throwing everything in but the kitchen sink” is a bad thing. There’s a tipping point at which more equals less. For qualitative research in particular, our primary goal is to understand “the why” behind thoughts, perceptions and beliefs. So if you’re asking 51 distinct questions in 60 minutes (I’m not exaggerating – I just finished a study in which the client had that expectation), that’s not a discussion. You’ve just turned your moderator into a verbal Uzi. As Barbara Walters has said, “Don’t be so intent on getting just the facts that you take out all the juice.” There’s no room to squeeze out that juicy insight and truly listen if you’re busy firing off questions.

And then, fast-forward to the analysis and reporting process. The implications of cramming in too many questions into the interview are:

  • You’ve got shallow and inconsistent answers to key questions because we were so rushed to discuss each one.
  • The team writing the report is spread too thin trying to summarize answers to so many questions that they can’t focus enough time on uncovering the true “ahas.”
  • Answers to several of the questions asked didn’t even make the cut in the final report. You realize only in hindsight that they aren’t actually relevant or actionable enough to include in the final presentation (or they’re relegated to the appendix).

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So why does this happen? We all can do the math – x minutes per question, and total of xx minutes allotted per interview – it’s clear in theory what we should do. Marketers are a smart, thoughtful breed, and with good intentions to listen and learn. But the reality is that we’re also aspirational. We want to do it all, and it’s hard to ignore the many business questions we want answered. Sometimes we face additional pressures, like a client team pressed for time to “fit it all into a single study.” Or there is limited available budget – this is the only study all year. Or, it’s simply difficult for the team to prioritize across various constituents. Regardless of the reasons, it happens.

After years of being caught in the middle of being an accommodating research partner while recognizing the need to push back, I hit on a psycho-sensory solution I now call “the egg carton method.” I hope by sharing this psycho-sensory research approach, it will help both client- and supplier-side researchers better mitigate the kitchen sink dilemma.


The Egg Carton Method

A well-accepted rule of thumb for qualitative research has always been that the amount of time to allow for an important/priority open-ended question is 4-5 minutes. If a typical one-on-one interview lasts 60 minutes, there’s time for approximately a dozen questions once you take into account the intro, sharing stimuli and the wrap-up. Ha! That’s an egg carton – what a fantastic visual to use with a research team to prioritize the 10-12 questions that really matter. Verbally explaining this to clients just doesn’t always sink in, and doesn’t help them push their team to prioritize.

Give this a try: As you draft your discussion guide, hold it to the egg carton standard. Thinking about a real egg carton with its 12 compartments, identify the 10-12 true research questions that are actionable or will inform key decisions. If it helps, write each on a piece of paper and put one into each slot of an egg carton. Once it’s full, if you come up with another important question, you have to remove one in order to make room.

Contrast this with our typical approach of typing a first draft into a Word document, with everyone editing and adding in thoughts. By design, a Word doc allows for infinite additions – there’s no explicit limitation. Something as simple as visualizing or using an egg carton with finite space helps the team see and feel the constraint. This also helps identify the questions you “star” or asterisk on the guide that you don’t want to skip, and gain consensus on everything else that will be addressed if there is time.

Obviously, every study is different. This isn’t a magic formula, but a way to better visualize the necessary trade-offs in ensuring you have an executable discussion within the time allotted. Give it a try and let me know how well it works for you.



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Six Degrees
Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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