Student of the world

Reflections on spring and interviewing

It’s March, which means two things: VMHQ is celebrating an anniversary (12 years!), and spring is coming. In the spirit of renewal, VMHQ has recently undergone a brand refresh. The owl now resides in a new color palette of light blue and golden yellow, reflecting the light that insights reflect on ideas. More personally, these colors also suggest the sun and the sea, and that fits perfectly with my home in Portland, Maine.

I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about the work that I do. Not long ago, I was approached by a college friend (Go Irish!) with a successful career in product development and management. He proposed that we partner to create an online course in interviewing for product managers, who he feels should talk more often – and more effectively – to their own customers.

It was an interesting request – not about qualitative research per se, but about the underlying skills of qualitative interviewing. I jumped at the chance to work with him, to collaborate, and to be more intentional about the work I have been doing for more than 20 years. We’re still in the process of pulling the course together. So much of my knowledge has been internalized, and it was harder than I imagined to articulate, for a beginner, how to get it done. Still, there are fundamental truths about interviewing that are essential to understand.

Somewhere along the way, I came upon a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, the 20th century novelist and filmmaker who said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” I love the alliteration of the second statement: poking and prying with a purpose. But really, it’s a phrase in the first sentence that says it all: formalized curiosity. These two words perfectly contain the qualitative interviewer. An effective interviewer is curious - driven to understand - and has a strategy to go after what needs to be explored.

I’m sometimes asked how I prepare for interviews in a new category, and my response is always the same: I go into each interview as a student, not an expert. It is certainly important to have a general understanding of the topic so that you can manage the conversation effectively, but it’s even more important to understand the learning objectives and ask the right questions to get you there. I am not an expert in roof construction, treating blood cancers, marketing a television show, managing osteoarthritis pain, or selling glassware.  But I have conducted valuable research in all of these areas and more, because I am a student of the world who comes to class prepared.

Whether you are hiring a researcher or speaking to a customer yourself, keep in mind the goal of formalized curiosity. Know what you want to learn, ask clear and simple questions, express your interest, maintain eye contact, and listen well. Be ready to learn.

Many thanks to all of you who have been a part of VMHQ’s journey over the past 12 years: you make this work rewarding in so many ways. Please visit the new website when you have a chance:, and let me know what you think. Happy spring!