Using Probes in Interviews and Focus Groups

“Probe” is such a weird word. It sounds so…medical. So invasive. Space aliens use probes. But probes are also important in interviews and focus groups.

The first response you get from an interview or focus group participant is hardly ever 1) unfiltered and true 2) clear 3) thorough and detailed 4) meaningful. Probes are needed to get closer to the truth with clear, detailed and meaningful responses.

Basic Questions Cloud Words, written with Chalk on Blackboard

Aside from “why?” what are some good probes to have in your tool kit?

Here are some good all-purpose probes for situations in which you need more information or to understand reasons, thoughts and feelings.

Probes to Understand Reasons, Thoughts and Feelings

  • What popped into your head when you heard/saw…?
  • What is your take on…?
  • What is it about those details that stick in your mind?
  • What was motivating you?
  • How did you feel about that?
  • What was most important about that situation?
  • What is it about ___ that you prefer/like/dislike?
  • What was going through your mind when that happened?
  • Can you share your reasons for that decision?
  • What if ____?
  • Did that make sense to you?
  • How could it have been different?

Probes to Clarify and Get More Details

  • Tell me more about ____.
  • When you say ____, what exactly do you mean?
  • So are you saying [paraphrase their response]?
  • Walk me through the whole experience step-by-step. What happened first?
  • What would that look like to someone watching?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • How do you do that?
  • Tell me about a time when you _____.
  • How is ____ related to ____?
  • That that all? Is there anything else to add?
  • Help me to visualize what you mean.
  • Can you show me or demonstrate what you mean?
  • How would you describe ____.

And the Best Probe of All?

Silence. Or silence with head nodding. Or silence with a puzzled expression.

People can’t stand silence and will rush to fill it up with clarifications, expansions and explanations.

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