Why Words Matter in Qual Research: For Meaningful Insight, You Need Meaningful Language

Have you ever repeated a word so often, it starts to lose its meaning? Try it: say the word “flower” 30 times in a row. You may find that after a while, it begins to sound like a random assortment of sounds, devoid of rhyme or reason.

There’s a scientific term for this phenomenon known as semantic satiation. Coined in the 1960s by Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, semantic satiation occurs when the rapid repetition of a word triggers both sensorimotor and central neural activity in the brain repeatedly. With each repetition, the word loses its intensity. To put it another way, the neurons become filled up with the word until they are completely satiated and unable to consume any more — at which point, they start rejecting the word’s meaning and it becomes gibberish.

In James’ own words, semantic satiation is described as:

“…a kind of a fatigue. It’s called reactive inhibition: When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds. So that kind of reactive inhibition…is what attracted me to an idea that if you repeat a word, the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.”

Fascinating, you might be thinking. But what does that have to do with qualitative research?

Jargon, Jargon, Everywhere

In the realm of qual research, semantic satiation may not seem like much of an issue. But jargon satiation certainly is. As researchers, we’re tasked with extracting meaning from the responses and feedback — that is to say, the words — we elicit from participants during focus group and interviews and distill into reports. Which is why it’s so very important for us to make sure the words we use to steer these conversations also have meaning. That requires being precise, clear, and jargon-free in our word choices — particularly when conducting complex B2B research for the jargon-rife technology, healthcare, and finance industries.

Jargon in the business world is everywhere. Best in class. Cutting edge. Synergies. Ecosystem. We’ve all heard these terms bandied about so many times, they’ve lost any meaning they might have once communicated. In fact, according to a survey conducted by American Express, 88% of office workers admitted to pretending to understand business jargon when in reality they had no clue what the words meant. Meaningless jargon is so pervasive, Grant Thornton — a global leader of audit, assurance, tax and advisory services — put together this comprehensive index of the most commonly (and egregiously) overused business buzzwords.

So how can we as researchers make sure we craft our screeners, discussion guides, and interview questions using words that eschew jargon and convey meaning? And how can we guide conversations with respondents that reveal meaningful insight? Yes, avoiding jargon is top of the list. But beyond the buzzwords, there are other steps we can take to communicate and converse with greater clarity, precision, and meaning.

Forego the Fluff

As moderators and researchers who enjoy a good story, we may be tempted to accessorize our screeners, discussion guides, and interview prompts with extraneous words and bloated descriptors that provide more fluff than substance. In addition to clouding the conversation, fluffy words may influence or bias participants to respond a certain way they might otherwise not have. That in turn impacts the quality and usefulness of the insight.

Be Specific

This guideline goes for the questions you ask, and for the responses you receive. Avoid generalized terms like “thing,” “some,” or vague words like “good,” “bad,” “happy,” “sad.” Drill down into the specifics of what constitutes good and bad, what made them feel happy or sad. Make sure your respondents truly understand the question, and if they don’t, rephrase it. If you’re not sure what a participant means by their response, ask for specificity and steer them toward those details.

Account for Interpretation

Words that sound specific and technical may be wind up having different meanings for different people. AI, for example, covers a broad range of technologies, methodologies, and implications. Depending on the level of knowledge and experience of the respondent, AI to some might mean ChatGPT while to others it means a robot or a self-driving car. You could be talking about limited memory AI or self-aware AI or theory of the mind AI. Clarifying squishy terms will help avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

Define Your Terms

When using words that may be interpreted differently, it helps to provide clarifying definitions that get everyone on the same page. So for example, if we’re asking focus group participants about their experience using software as a service — which has become a vague bucket lumping together a wide range of cloud-based software delivery models — we let the group know what we mean by that phrase.

Keep It Simple

Even — perhaps especially — with the complexities of technology, healthcare, and finance, we find that simple is often best. Get right to the point. By distilling a question down to its most basic form, using the fewest words possible, you may be able get your meaning across more clearly and directly. This approach is also more likely to get straightforward answers.

Speak Their Language

As moderators, we want to connect with our respondents. In our experience, the most meaningful insight comes from having peer-to-peer conversations with participants. That requires speaking their language, using words they use in their everyday work and lives. We remind ourselves that at the end of the day, we’re conversing with people — not just software engineers or neurosurgeons or brokers or interview subject #32. So talk to them, one human to another.

Reports, Too

All these guidelines apply to reports as well. To reveal truly meaningful insight, reports need to be simple and straightforward, with zero fluff, bias, or bloat. They need to get to the point as quickly as possible, with clearly defined terms that leave no wiggle room for multiple interpretations. And they need to be crafted for the audience who will be using them; a report written for a CEO should differ from a report written for a brand manager, for instance.

All this to say: words matter. A lot. The power of qualitative research comes from the story it reveals behind the data — and the words used to tell that story. Choosing those words carefully, with precision and intent, ensures that the stories we tell as researchers are truthful, resonant, and impactful. And above all, immune to semantic satiation.