How 30 Years in Qualitative Research Changed Me

I’ve been a qualitative research “moderator” for more than 30 years. Recently, while traveling to Aruba with my wife to celebrate our 25th anniversary, I was struck by how much this profession has impacted who and what I am today, and it led me to wonder what I’d be like if I’d never become a moderator…

Airport Mode

It made sense that I’d be struck by how this profession has changed me while traveling. Travel is a huge part of being a qualitative professional. I estimate that I’ve flown almost five million miles over the past 30 years–mostly domestic–meaning thousands of relatively short flights and countless hours in airports and waiting in one line or another.

I am a travel animal. From the moment I leave home, I am driven by competitive instinct. I derive perverse pleasure in knowing how to gain the slightest travel advantage. For instance, when using the Air Train to ride to the car rental counter at SFO, I get in the last car and stand by the last door. When it opens, I’m the first off and first into the car rental line. If you assume it takes each customer five minutes in line, and I manage to get ahead of 7 or 8 others, I’ve saved 35-40 minutes. I share the last two sentences as evidence–the fact that I have actually thought through this proves that, at least when in airports, I am no longer normal.

I am also a source of endless suggestions to other, less experienced travelers. I happily provide hints and suggestions for airport navigation. Most don’t listen. Those who make the mistake of asking usually develop a far-away gaze as the increasingly obscure details I provide become overwhelming.

I used to frighten my family when traveling with them. As my children have gotten older, they’ve started to view me as a source of entertainment. They laugh as I morph into “airport mode:” I walk faster, analyze the comparative speed of various line options and generally attempt to do everything faster than anyone else–even though we’re on vacation and have plenty of time.

Bottled-Up Opinions

Another occupational hazard is that I rarely get to participate in really interesting conversations. My job is to stimulate conversations and explore comments I don’t fully understand. But, I am not allowed to offer my own thoughts, observations, experiences and opinions. For 30 years, I have participated in tens of thousands of conversations without the satisfying experience of telling others that my opinion is more right than theirs. I have had to learn to mimic the experience by talking to myself.

This also means that when given the opportunity to actually voice an opinion, I usually can’t stop. There are 30 years of withheld comments in my brain.

General “Nebbiness”

The most important skill a moderator must have is the ability to ask the best follow-up question at the right time. Probing for completeness, depth and clarity, or to stimulate further thought or self-examination, is often the skill that separates poor from good and good from excellent in this profession.

I have read that there are many professions in which the professional’s personal life is not reflective of their profession. The mechanic’s car needs repair. The carpenter’s house needs some work. This is not true for me. In my personal life, I often ask way too many questions. When friends or family tell me about their days, their successes, their challenges, their opportunities, I often probe to excess–prompting them to tell me less and less in subsequent conversations. One friend from Pittsburgh told me I was “nebby,” which, in that fair city, apparently means you’re nosy.

Occupational Curiosity

As in many professions, market researchers need to learn everything we can about the product categories in which we work. I can’t walk through a drug store without stopping at the toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant, candy, vitamin, shampoo and, believe it or not, condom displays because I have to see which brands and products the store carries, read on-package claims, review pricing, check out placements, etc.

This is equally true in grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, car dealerships, athletic shoe and sporting goods stores, and countless other locations. And with websites, online banking and online brokers. I have to see what’s “happening” in any category in which I’ve worked. As you can imagine, I have to be careful how many errands I plan to get done in a day because it’s easy for me to get sidetracked.

Yes, indeed, being a moderator has had anything but a moderate effect on my life. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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