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Qualitative by the Numbers – Blog Five: Zero “Why” Questions in a Qualitative Research Event [QRE]

Posted on October 22, 2021 by Riva Market Research Training Institute

In RIVA’s continuing series on Qualitative Research by the Numbers, one of the numbers is zero, the exact number of times to ask “why” as a probe in a qualitative research interview.

Interesting to note that the entire world of QLMR is predicted on the

concept of understanding “why,” so questions, like the ones below, are often asked in QREs:

  • Why did you like concept three best out of the set you saw?
  • Why are you loyal to Brand X?
  • Why did you purchase the extended warranty on your car?
  • Why do you trust Fidelity to manage your investments?

The underlying premise that led to these questions, is a desire to understand the landscape of the minds of respondents. How did they get to this point in time?   As market researchers, we do want to discover:

  • Which tipping points lead to purchase decisions?
  • What influences a particular choice among options?
  • How do consumers form POBAs [Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs and Attitudes]?

The problem rests in the three little letters:  W – H – Y – the actual word itself. If the three-letter word could be seen as bullets in a gun, fired when a moderator asks “Why” did you _______?” the process of asking the question would murder the respondent – not a desirable outcome if what is wanted is a reason, a rationale, or a way to understand how the consumer got to this point.

Reasons to Avoid “Why” as a Probe

Although the job of “probing for clarity” requires sets of words to get to

  1. The “heart” of the matter [what is the root of a POBA?], and
  2. What’s below “top-of-mind” responses [going beyond easy knee-jerk responses],

Those “probing” words need to be carefully considered so respondents are:

  • willing to divulge their thinking,
  • knowing they won’t be judged,
  • truly believe there are no wrong answers to a moderator’s questions.

Those probing words should not trigger a defensive stance or cause embarrassment for a respondent. Those probing words should invite the moderator into the world of the respondent and provide a chance to see a different view from where the respondent is standing.

It is easier to identify words or phrases that do the opposite: words that switch people off. The chief culprit among these words is the simple question “Why?”

Interestingly, despite the whole point of qualitative research is aimed at answering the question “Why?” – the actual word will generally lead to poor depth of response in QREs. Here are some possible reasons:

  • Why? usually causes only one form of response. “Because…,” which restricts the range of answers. [There is no “s” on why – so it often leads to just one answer].
  • Why? is attacking – so a reply is typically defensive – even when there is no reason to defend a past action.
  • Why? can put people on the spot, making them feel as if they have to think of a plausible reason immediately.
  • Why? can be very personal, touchy, inflammatory, and just plain rude – the opposite of eliciting, encouraging, or inviting.
  • Why? is loaded with associations, such as whining kids, accusing parents, judging teachers, and authoritative bosses.
  • Why? attempts to use rational thinking to explain emotional or spontaneous responses, the landscape of what makes us human.

So, what can a moderator do to mitigate the damage of a “why” question? Four questions to consider:

  1. What can be said that opens up opportunities for rich responses?  
  2. What can be asked that frees a respondent to talk in detail about an experience or a belief or they way they see the world?
  3. What can lessen their desire to just produce a quick answer and hope the moderator moves on?
  4. What are some better probes than “why?”

Here are the questions asked at the beginning of this blog, followed by three different alternatives to get to get to “how come,” rather than asking “why?”

  • Why did you like concept three best of the set you saw?


  1.  What made concept three your winner?
  2.  What did you consider/reject in the other two concepts?
  3.  What factors moved you to pick concept three?
  • Why are you loyal to Brand X?


  1. What are some key reasons you continue to be loyal to Brand X?
  2. In what ways are you proud that Brand X is your personal choice?
  3. How did Brand X work its way into your heart?
  • Why did you purchase the extended warranty on your car?


  1. Where did you first find out about the benefits of extended warranties?
  2.  If you didn’t buy the extended warranty, what would you be missing?
  3. What was the key tipping point where you said; “I’m getting the extended warranty on this car!”
  • Why do you trust Fidelity to manage your investments?


  1. What influenced, swayed, or moved you to trust Fidelity?
  2. Which steps did you take to led you to Fidelity?
  3. How did Fidelity earn your trust?


RIVA has been asked: “If you frame a “why” question in a soft tone and add warmth so that it is more conversational, could that work?” The ensuing discussion ended with all parties understanding that one can obtain a response to a why question, but it still doesn’t make a “why” question useful to the process of qualitative inquiry.  Revisit those same four original questions and they types of answers they provide:

Q: Why did you like concept three best of the set you saw?

A: It was the most logical of the three.

Q: Why are you loyal to Brand X?

A: I’ve used I for a long time – it is familiar to me.

Q: Why did you purchase the extended warranty on your car?

A: I guess other people do it, so it was probably the smart thing to do.

Q: Why do you trust Fidelity to manage your investments?

A: I’m not sure – Everyone in my family uses Fidelity – so I thought I should too.

Yes, a “why” question can get a response, but notice how short the answers are…requiring the moderator to probe for more information to get to the richness of a more detailed answer – well below top-of-mind. That process eats up time while the alternatives listed earlier, guide respondents to provide more “narrative” in their answers – sometimes even surprising themselves by the insights they provide.  One example to make that point:

Why Q:        Why did you purchase the extended warranty on your car?

Better Q:      Where did you first find out about the benefits of an extended warranty?

Answer:        “You know, at first, I thought that the dealer was just trying to “upsell me” by offering an extended warranty, but he did say “Don’t take my word – read blogs on the internet from Audi and Volvo and Acura owners – see what those customers say.” And I thought…. he sent me to competitor sites – hmm…. I’ll check it out…and bam! What a lesson I got from reading half a dozen blogs…people had $7,000 engine replacement for less than $50; someone had their brakes repaired twice in 5 years and it cost them only a diagnostic fee. I was sold – so I bought one.”

As a moderator, would you want an 11-word answer to a “why” Q or a rich story that provides:

  1.  Great quotations
  2.  Information about the journey from “no” to “yes” in the mind of a consumer

It is RIVA’s belief that avoiding “why” as a probe is:

  • A more efficient way to collect POBAs.
  • A way to invite more story/detail from respondents.
  • A good method to avoid putting respondents on the defensive – making the interview more conversational.

It is also RIVA’s belief that avoiding “why” in all conversations that are not market research related, is a valuable tool as the story below conveys.

Short Story About the Weakness of “Why” Questions in Social Conversations

A husband told his wife over the phone at 4:30 pm.: “I will be home close to 6:00, in time to eat dinner and still make that meeting tonight at 7:15.” When he was not home by 6:30 his wife became worried.

By 6:45 she was angry and upset, thinking “He should have called.” When he rolled in at 7:05, hot and angry, she fueled his fire with her gasoline question: Why are you late?”

He slammed the door to the bedroom and screamed, “I do not want to talk about it!” Quickly realizing she wouldn’t get the answer she wanted, she waited, then reframed the question as she carefully opened the door to the bedroom.

Speaking in a softer tone she said, “Honey, you said you would be home by 6:00, and now it is after 7:00. What happened, and are you all right?”

He turned, and with a look of frustration began telling her about losing a file while trying to e-mail it to a client, a frozen computer screen, and the backup on the freeway, not to mention the moving truck blocking the entrance to their street.

By the time he finished the story, he felt better and she had her information. Yes, they were late to the meeting, but the life lesson learned by her was well worth sliding into the last row of that meeting.

Behold the power of not using why anywhere in life!

Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder