The art of market research interviewing: How to avoid bias and leading questions

Why conduct market research interviews?

Conducting interviews is a great way to gather insights about your products, market and competition. Interviews are used mainly as a form of primary research. They involve speaking directly with current or potential customers to learn more about their pain points and desired gains. Although interviews are a great source of information and provide valuable insights, it is important to avoid interviewer bias and to refrain from asking leading questions.

This article provides insights on avoiding interviewer bias and leading questions, as well as a checklist and tips & tricks.

What is interviewer bias?

Interviewer bias stems from trying to get specific answers or information from the interviewee that will directly support your hypothesis. It interferes with being objective, both negatively and positively, and clouds the interviewee’s judgment when they provide answers. This bias can be shown through body language, attitude, inconsistency in questioning or particular wording (i.e., leading questions) that leads the interviewee to answer a specific way.

Dismissing an interviewee’s response from the collected data because it doesn’t align with your hypothesis or it contradicts other interviewees’ responses is another common type of bias. Outliers often tell a bigger story than the collected interviewees’ responses.

What is a leading question?

A leading question may influence interviewees to provide a desired answer. This can occur through the use of specific wording or body language.

For example, “You do enjoy working here, right?” is a leading question. It uses specific language that implies you want the interviewee to answer they do enjoy working there, instead of allowing them to answer honestly in their own words. This type of questioning often pressures the interviewee and limits the integrity of the interview, as it might not produce honest responses.

Consider reframing your questions like this:

  • I’m sure you follow safety protocols while at work, right? → Do you always follow safety protocols while at work?
  • You enjoyed our services, didn’t you? → Did you enjoy our services? Why or why not?

Importance of framing questions

When framing questions, consider the ultimate goal of the project and the research questions to ensure each question provides value. Use the same set of interview questions for every interviewee to avoid bias and ensure a level of consistency between interviewees.

Questions should be short, direct and to the point. Break big ideas or concepts into smaller, multiple questions to avoid confusing the interviewee and ensure you receive a clear answer. Use direct language to ask one question at a time. If you want to know how someone feels about two different things, ask two separate questions.

Instead of this:

  • Interviewer: Do you like using Slack Huddles and Zoom?
    Interviewee: Yes

Ask this:

  • Interviewer: Do you like using Slack Huddles?
    Interviewee: Yes
    Interviewer: Do you like using Zoom?
    Interviewee: No

Breaking larger concepts into smaller questions will enable the interviewee to provide the most accurate response because it enables them to focus on one question at a time.

Checklist to ensure questions are framed properly:

  • Is this question clear and concise?
  • Is this question open to interpretation from the interviewee?
  • Does this question inform an assumption?
  • Does this question lean toward confirmation of my personal bias?
  • Does this question have a pretext phrase to sway answers? (“I’m sure you already know the answer to this but….”)

Market research interview tips and tricks

  • Allow plenty of time for questions to be answered: According to the NNG, world leaders in research-based user experience, “Apply intentional silences to create space for interviewees to think and respond in a thoughtful, unhurried manner… don’t finish interviewees’ sentences in an attempt to read their minds to fill the silence.”
  • Be flexible and responsive: Use interviewees’ answers to ask follow-up questions and dig deeper.
  • Use a rating scale to gather quantitative data: Instead of asking whether interviewees agree or disagree, ask them to rate on a scale of 1-5 and why they rated it that way to compare responses.
  • Conduct a mock interview before the actual session: Conduct a mock interview session with colleagues before the interviews begin. It takes practice to get comfortable with being agile and easily reframing a question if the interviewee misinterprets it. Saying the questions out loud will give you an idea of the interview flow and whether any questions need to be rearranged. Time yourself for the duration of the interview and see if any questions seem repetitive, redundant or won’t provide sufficient insights. This will give you a sense of the interview length and help to perfect your discussion guide.

It is crucial to stay open-minded to all possibilities. Let the information lead you to the proper conclusion, rather than leading the interview to the conclusion you believe to be correct.