How to Ask the Right Questions: Three Tips to Improve Your Product Research

August 8, 2016

Like all businesses, financial institutions depend on their customers to survive. But as they prepare to launch new products or improve existing ones, they do not always assess their customers’ needs first. For financial institutions that serve low-income women, not knowing their target clients’ needs is a sure-fire way to not serve them well. Recognizing this Women’s World Banking has started conducting research capacity-building training sessions with partner institutions so they can better understand their women customers and more successfully design products tailored to meet their unique needs.

Building institutions’ research capacity is by no means intended to replace the expertise Women’s World Banking brings. While there is no substitute to our decades of experience, team of highly trained researchers, global perspective, and technical expertise in analyzing research data, we still want to enable our partners to learn about their customers. Helping our partners research in strategic ways to help improve products and services will lead to stronger institutions that make better financial products more widely available to people and communities that will benefit most.

NBS Bank in Malawi and Ujjivan in India were the first recipients of this training. Both institutions shared a similar goal: understanding the needs of local rural communities for individual and group bank savings accounts, as well as for other formal financial services. In the weeklong sessions, we trained staffers how to design interview questions and focus groups; drilled them on interviewing skills; had them practice with live customers in focus groups; and showed them how to interpret the results in debriefing sessions afterwards.

Interviewing as a research tactic can seem deceptively easy. But it’s not as simple as just conducting the interview. To get crucial, unbiased information from customers, then determine what solutions to offer them, requires certain skills and techniques. These three tips from our training sessions are among the most important, and the easiest to overlook:

1. Probe, Don’t Prompt

What is the difference between probing and prompting in research?Researchers often begin thinking they know the answers respondents might give – this can lead to bias. It’s important to ask open questions that don’t lead to a particular answer. Also avoid wording or body language that hints at an expected answer—this is what we mean by “probing” instead of prompting. If researchers are from the regions they’re working in and have lived there all their lives, it’s natural that they might try to predict what customers may think about a certain subject. We train our partners to realize that they’re likely to discover surprising answers to their questions if they ask in an open and unbiased way, no matter how well they think they know their own culture or community.

Probing is particularly important when trying to understand why something isn’t working. For example, we were trying to understand how well group savings accounts were meeting the needs of their members. The groups function very well and members are quite satisfied. But without asking the right questions, a researcher would not realize that there are times when groups put pressure on an individual not to withdraw savings. This typically happens because members want to keep the pool of funds as large as possible to lend it out and earn interest. If researchers ask people about group savings, they will say the system is great since that’s the “party line,” and they do genuinely believe it. But if you probe into different scenarios as we did—for example, what do individuals do when they need to take out some money for a private issue or an emergency?—then you start to see that there are barriers. You learn that people do want to keep some of their money in an independent account.

2. Manage Focus Groups to Get the Most Useful Results

An example of debrief questions after a day of doing researchIn focus groups, certain personality types can have a disproportionate influence on the dynamic. It’s important to manage those groups in order to yield useful results; for instance, avoiding eye contact with participants who try to monopolize the conversation is one way to discourage them from dominating it. Taking good notes is another crucial strategy when conducting a focus group. People often jot down just a few things, but we train them to take a verbatim transcript. And after conducting the interviews, it’s important for the team to meet and debrief. That’s the best way to collect and assess the actionable information from the interviews and decide on an action plan. Debriefing doesn’t always happen unless a team makes it a priority, so we emphasize this in our training.

3. Games and Exercises Can Reveal Important Insights

Especially when doing youth research, we like to use various games and exercises. This allows participants to express themselves in a variety of ways, particularly if they’re shy and reluctant to participate verbally. For example, we often ask participants—even adults—to draw pictures. This also allows people who have literacy barriers to join in. We also let participants rank the subjects of discussion in a different order, or group ideas in a variety of ways, to make the interviews more interactive and productive.

After the training we conducted with Ujjivan and NBS, we received strong, positive feedback from the participants. For instance, Joel Chafulumira, who works in Research and Market Intelligence for NBS Bank, said, “I really enjoyed this experience. It gave me a new platform to interact with our customers.” Both institutions plan to take this training forward, and continue doing research on their own. We’re thrilled to be able to support these institutions’ research capacity as it ultimately helps our collective goal of serving more low-income women with financial services.

By Anjali Banthia, Specialist, Consumer Insights and Engagement & Ramatolie Saho, Senior Associate, Product Development