Laddering Interview? Channel Your Inner 3-Year-Old

Students in professor Kim Saxton's M450 class last semester were assigned to do research on backpacks and write a blog post. This week's entry is from senior Danielle Look:

Any Kelley School of Business student who has successfully completed M303 Marketing Research is more than qualified to conduct interviews for the purpose of gathering primary market data. Depth Interviews and Laddering Interviews differ only in the minute distinction that the latter aims to construct a diagram depicting the values that drive consumer purchasing decisions. The type of data collected via open-ended, probing questions is the same for either method.

Like any set of skills one sets out to acquire, practice makes perfect, and the professors at Kelley are no stranger to this truth. Reflecting on a recent assignment to conduct five laddering interviews about bags and backpacks, I came to realize that the best results came when I channeled my inner 3-year-old.

Always ask “Why?” even when it might seem annoying.

When a consumer is asked why they like something, they’ll usually respond with simple, short descriptions of the product — otherwise known as attributes (e.g. size, shape, color, capacity, material). It feels natural to follow by asking why those features are important, but after that it can get weird and feel forced.

Resist the temptation to move on to the next question in your research plan by continuing to ask why in precisely the way you’re asking it in your head, even if it seems obsessive.

When I asked an urban commuter from Chicago if her backpack was currently meeting her needs, our conversation flowed like this:

Respondent: I don’t need a new backpack but I want a new backpack.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Respondent: Because I’m embarrassed to be walking around with the one I have.

Interviewer: Why does your current backpack embarrass you?

Respondent: Because it’s old and ragged and has holes in it.

Interviewer: Why would a new one be better?

Respondent: Because I want something stylish that blends in with the crowds.

Interviewer: Why do you think a new backpack would help you blend in?

Respondent: My backpack does not feel very sophisticated or professional, so in my mind I want to find something that is.

Take everything literally.

When you’re dealing with qualitative research where the answers are not always black and white, there is a temptation to clarify what the respondent has said with your own insight or experience. This is especially true as your interview schedule advances, trends begin to emerge, and you can predict what might be said next. That’s when it’s time to channel your inner 3-year-old again and remember to take everything your interviewee says at face value.

If you asked a young child to “chew the fat” with you, you might be surprised when they lean in to nibble at your belly instead of sitting down to tell you what they’ve been up to. Similarly, when a respondent says he keeps toiletries in his backpack, you cannot discern that his backpack is used as an overnight bag unless you specifically ask to clarify (which, by the way, is a totally acceptable thing to do).

Learn to expect (and accept) that the world is not as you perceive it to be.

Childhood, much like marketing research, is all about discovery. Free of preconceived notions about what should and shouldn’t be, children wander the earth with wide-open eyes free of judgment and full of wonder. Embody these traits as you conduct interviews and be open to whatever twists and turns your laddering road presents to you.

Though I was mostly interested in the backpack preferences and tendencies of my interview participants, some told me outright that they do not use a backpack at all and instead preferred messenger bags. Rather than thanking them for their time and ending the interview after only five minutes, I asked them the same set of questions I had prepared for avid backpack users but applied them to their preferred style of bag.

In one such instance, the respondent confessed that she often finds herself carrying multiple reusable grocery bags with deep and wide capacity to supplement her messenger bag. “I suppose a backpack of some sort would alleviate that need for multiple bags,” she said aloud as she evaluated whether or not her messenger bag currently meets her needs. The unexpected turn was a welcomed one and I followed with questions about the type of backpack she would choose if she abandoned her messenger bag.

Now that you’ve learned to channel your inner 3-year-old, it’s time to start climbing the ladder to your ideal audience by using your insights to create user personas, discover brand advocates, and understand how their preferences and values dictate their purchase decisions.

How have you successfully used laddering to discover useful information about your target market?


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