Lost in Translation: Are You Asking What You Think You Are Asking?

Earlier this year I was fortunate to vacation in Thailand and Vietnam. It’s always enriching to experience other cultures and be reminded that what’s ‘normal’ to you, may not be the norm everywhere.

Language is an obvious one. I am, to my dismay, hopeless at languages despite having tried to learn Afrikaans, Dutch, French, German and Spanish at various junctures in my life. Although my dabble with Spanish was so brief that I’m not sure it counts as an attempt. Given my inability to master even the basics, I’m always extremely grateful (and in awe) of people being able to communicate with me in English.

During this past trip, I did have a couple of occasions to smile at some local signage. A Vietnamese cave, containing some very impressive stalagmites and stalactites, had a sign saying, “Not allowed to climb up, write down and draw into the stalagmite’. Prepositions matter, but the point is clear: look but don’t touch the stalagmite.

Less clear was signage in a Bangkok dining hall seeking a TripAdvisor review, asking “How was your feel?”

Once we moved past the inevitable laughter, my traveling companions and I debated the intended question. Should it be a straightforward switch of ‘feel’ with ‘food’? That certainly makes sense. But equally, we wondered if they were interested in how we felt about our food and overall dining experience. This is an entirely legitimate question. A recent Forrester study, commissioned by FocusVision, shows that how people feel about a brand has 1.5x more impact on business outcomes than how they think. So in that regard, it is perhaps an even better one than a more straightforward inquiry about the food.

While any confusion with these signs arises through the translation from one language to another, they did make me think about the questions that we ask our research participants. We can be so wrapped up in our world that we use terminology, jargon, and phrasing that makes perfect sense to us in our research and marketing discussions but is opaque or perhaps even nonsensical to the person answering the question.

Whether you are asking questions in a survey, focus group, or online research community, it’s extremely important that you simplify your questions. They should be as short and concise as possible (rule of thumb, 10 words or less) and use every day, conversational language. Once you’ve crafted your questions, run through them as a participant. Do they make sense to you? Are they readily understandable? Next, have a team member (who has not been involved in the question design) or even better a willing friend or family member take a pass. For large scale studies and/or those with particular business importance, it is worth conducting a small pilot test of your questionnaire, interview guide or activities as it will swiftly identify any troublesome wording and provide alternatives that do get to your intended meaning.

These small steps are worth their weight in gold in obtaining the data, and insight, you aim to gather from the study and prevent your questions from being lost in translation.

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