Tip #5: Avoid Ignoring the Quiet Ones

I am an introvert. This may come as a surprise to some who know me. When I am at conferences and doing projects, I may not come across as one. But I am. I am all about staying home and reading a book on a Friday night. Fortunately I have an extroverted partner-in-crime who keeps from becoming a social outcast.

As an introvert at heart, when online qualitative methods began, I was quick to realize how the methods were more inclusive for this oft-ignored segment of the public. Thus my thoughts on how introversion can impact your research studies.

Back in the early 1960s, Isabel Meyers of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Meyers-Briggs organization guessed that only 25% of Americans were introverts. She probably thought that because it is fairly well documented that our culture here extolls extravert characteristics. So maybe she felt that natural selection would reduce the portion of introverts in the population. I think she should have known better than to throw out a number willy-nilly that was then picked up and taken for gospel to this day. Decades later, the same organization published results of a random sampling of their test-takers and introverts made up 50.7% of the population. So, there you have it. About half of your customers or marketplace are probably introverts. And, if you do a fair amount of focus groups or live in-depth interviews, that should concern you.

With surveys done online, no real issue. Introverts and extraverts are equally comfortable taking part in an online survey. But with phone surveys and intercept surveys (like in the mall or at the airport), it’s reasonable to argue these methods probably underrepresent introverts. I know if I see someone with a clipboard in the mall or on the street, I instinctively avoid eye contact and if asked to take part in a survey will decline. In fact, phone surveys, whereas they used to be considered representative, with the onset of cell phones and call management features in the last couple decades, have become less and less representative of the population, let alone introverts. (Over 20 years ago when the company I was with was still conducting primarily phone surveys, I was struck by how much the retired population grew to be part of the responses to our surveys. Things have only gotten worse since then.)

Focus groups are a different matter. As far as I can tell (i.e., as far as I can Google), there hasn’t been any research on research to reliably determine how many introverts don’t accept invitations to take part in focus groups because the thought of participating in a group discussion, even for a decent incentive, is about the same in their minds as volunteering to undergo waterboarding. In my experience, any one group I have moderated has included only one or two obvious introverts. I would feel safe in saying that extroverts are way overrepresented in focus groups.

That said, there are introverts like myself, who have developed extravert side just to survive this culture that places more value on extraverts. So I could be wrong on the assumption that fewer introverts take part in focus groups.

Whether just one or half of the participants in a focus group are introverts, there is additional concern to contemplate, as group dynamics do not fit well the introvert’s way of thinking or expressing themself.

A hallmark of the focus group method is that participants respond quickly to the discussion. It’s what makes them valuable for getting at top-of-mind reactions to new ideas. Most introverts, myself included, mull things over before responding. I know I am horrible in a live debate or discussion--as my retorts come too late to make them. Thus the quiet participant or two that appear to be hesitant and shy, but are in reality just listening and forming their thoughts. A good moderator knows how to pull those deeper thoughts out and engage them in the discussion in a way that they are comfortable with sharing their opinions. In that way, introverts can be a real asset to a focus group, counterbalancing the impulsive thinking and opinions that extraverts are prone to.

If you are in the backroom watching groups, you will also typically fall prey to an implicit bias: the more assertive, louder participants will inform your insights more than the quieter ones. This is a natural thing. Just look at social media or the media. The louder voices tend to be seen as more credible. Domineering extraverts can be the clickbait of the focus group, leaving a stronger impression and greater pull on your insights than they deserve.

Another concern for me is the group dynamics and how they affect both extraverts and introverts. Extraverts feed off the energy of other people. As the group dynamics get going, one of the benefits of a focus group, the extraverts will catch fire and become more vocal and more engaged in the discussion. That’s a good thing. Extraverts’ opinions are of worth. However, that same dynamic that opens up an extravert is what shuts down an introvert. As the volume rises, your introverted participants will get even quieter. Unless the moderator reaches out to introverts in the group to open them up and to sometimes shut up the extraverts, you will be hearing from only half your customers.

As an introvert myself, I find it very easy to spot the introverts early on in the discussion, and try to reach out to them to make them more comfortable and more likely to express their thoughts. Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean their thoughts or opinions have no value. But, sadly, I have to say that the personality of any one focus group session is often shaped by one or two dominating participants. No matter how good your moderator, it’s just the nature of groups to get that bias towards the louder ones over the quieter ones.

These concerns don’t mean that I think focus groups are a bad method to use. They can be very useful in a number of situations. But the whole issue of representing both extraverts and introverts in insights discovery is why I particularly like online qualitative methods--especially hybrid approaches like following up focus groups with a bulletin board, or including webcam questions in a bulletin board method or online research community.

Back in the day, in the late 1990’s, when I was first using bulletin boards to conduct research, I noticed that we were learning new and different things. Part of that I ascribe to the ability of a participant in a bulletin board to think deeper and respond more richly on the subject. But I also think it has to do with the greater inclusiveness of introverts into the qualitative discussion. Introverts were finally given a voice in qualitative research and we were hearing their insights along with those we had heard all along--giving a fuller, more representative picture of the customer.

Diversity in qualitative is a critical element in discovering insights that represent all your customers. Maybe it is time that we make our research more inclusive of introverts too.