The blind men and the elephant.

People often ask me how they can improve their consumer interviewing skills.  The thought being that if they can perfect the art of the one-on-one interview that they will have the key to understanding their markets.

I applaud the intention, and people who try to stick to a script rather than have a conversation with a consumer can surely improve their skills.  But it's important to remember that one-on-one interviews are only one tool in your toolbox.  Full understanding of what will drive consumer behavior in a given market requires a combination of qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary, and generative and evaluative research tools.

How do you know which ones to use?  The answer to that question requires a clear understanding of the business decisions that need to be made.  Research should never be expected to give you an answer.  It is a tool to give you information that will help you to derive the right answer.  And the best way to ensure that you've arrived at the right answer is to collect information that will expose all sides of the issue you are dealing with, covering the proverbial blind spots.

Which leads me to the blind men and the elephant metaphor.  In the story, six blind men are asked to describe an elephant, yet each only touches one part of the elephant.  The man who touches the tusk thinks the elephant is like a spear, the man who touches the side things the elephant is like a wall, and so on.  They end up arguing that the elephant is most like whichever part they had experienced, without realizing that the elephant is made up of all of the elements, and is not at all like any single one. 

My advice is that the best way to improve consumer understanding skills is to figure out which perspectives and information will be necessary to paint the whole elephant. This can only be done by reconciling the results of all the tools used, rather than relying on any one to deliver the answer.  Which then means that the best skill to hone is critical thinking.