The Craft of Qualitative Research
All qualitative research is based on the premise that people can (potentially) give you rich explanations about how and why they consume goods and that these explanations will create opportunities for brands (products, services) to be associated with desirable qualities that will help them to be selected before competitor brands.
Traditionally qualitative researchers took the view that people, in the ordinary way, neither think very much about why they choose things nor are they very accurate about describing how they behave.
Specialist skills were necessary to help people articulate their reasons-why and/or to observe their behaviour. These skills were borrowed from Freudian psychology (unconscious desires and projected meanings) and from anthropology (the social meaning associated with different brands or products in a particular culture).
The methodologies of group discussions, depth interviews and participant observations grew up as the favoured ways for the Specialist to engage with the Consumer. .
Interviewing, rather than observation, has been the dominant methodology, although in recent years there has been renewed interest in observation as a companion methodology with a desire to scrutinize behaviour in the search for unmet consumer needs and new product opportunities.
The craft of qualitative research (via interviewing) is comprised of two core skills; elicitation and analysis (in conducting research they occur both sequentially and simultaneously).
The craft of elicitation can appear to be an easy and natural one; watching a group discussion it can seem to be little more than the art of conversation. (After watching a few sessions the application of the skill becomes more apparent.) The skill elicitation is essentially in asking open-ended (or indirect) questions and in making non-judgemental responses to the views proposed but in a way which suggests affirmation and encourages the speaker to say more. In a group this usually involves encouraging and not closing on, varying and sometimes contradictory viewpoints of different individuals or alliances within groups.
The experience of the group is usually some way away from the so-called discussion guide. (The discussion guide is no more than a checklist of the issues the client needs answers to.) By contrast, the discussion has a free flowing, spontaneous character as respondents react to each other; share, build. oppose, contrast, contradict. Starting with a subject that rarely commands their attention, they surprise themselves as they reveal, through the to and fro of lively exchange, the deeper psychological and cultural meanings of their consumption choices.
The important job is to create a relaxed, stimulating, permissive group feeling that limits inhibition and fosters this liveliness. The safest and more conventional way to achieve this is to select respondents on commonality (lifestage, class, usership etc).
Nowadays, there is a growing interest in combining deliberately conflicting consumers within a single group and it seems to me that this is a reflection of the growing sophistication of respondents in terms of awareness of marketing and advertising, a subject we will return to later.
The continuing popularity and robustness of group discussions (despite fierce criticisms which again we will discuss later) is precisely due to the added value it offers over and above a literal direct questions to answers dialogue.
It is more difficult in an individual interview to generate a level of stimulation equivalent to that provided by the cut and thrust of comparing your own views to those of others. A respondent in a one-to-one interview remains more self-conscious for longer. They try to be a good interviewee and to supply you with adequate answers and as a consequence its harder to free the session from the more superficial and rational response. One to one interviews do enable more discreet accounts of individual behaviour and need to be considered for very private or sensitive subject areas but, paradoxically, because they are less conducive to generating inadvertent response, they do not necessarily get to deeper emotions and values, leastways in the one-off sessions normally used in commercial research, where the subject matter is fairly unimportant to them.
I believe a better alternative to an individual interview is the Friendship Pair. Two respondents, who are close friends, very quickly pick-up their accustomed rapport and overcome the self-awareness of wanting to be good interviewees. With just two respondents, themes can be given greater time than in groups and the disclosure can become deep, private and intensive as friends both challenge and give security in each other.
It is theoretically possible that friends may not want to reveal too much in front of each other, but I have not found this to be an issue as long as respondents are real friends and not just neighbours or associates!
Group discussions, however, especially the contemporary focus groups, will always have their critics and decriers. Young Creatives in Advertising have always struggled to accept the authenticity of the responses of group respondents to their embryonic ideas. Outside of advertising, critics in marketing or in public life say that the problem with qualitative research is that it is an inhibiting force on the business of creating the future (be it political policy, artistic invention, npd or advertising creativity). This view sees people as conservative and as stubbornly attached to what they know and suspicious of change. The argument is that qualitative methodology is good at telling us where people are coming from but falls below the mark when we rely on it to predict where people are willing to be taken.
Such criticisms hoist qualitative research on its own petard! As already suggested, qualitative research is based on the premise of going beyond the rational to a level of decision making that people know little about but can reveal with appropriate probing and stimulation. We only accept as authentic an easily articulated view when it is consistent with a more embedded value that the interview has revealed. The spectre of the focus group, as discussed in public media, seems to suggest direct questions, prejudicial answers and entrenchment in the status quo. This is a grotesque caricature of what we do but if we are not careful one that can begin to permeate through to client sentiment!
There are two themes that I want to reflect on in order to address this concern. One is the degree to which people have changed from the marketing primitives that qualitative research initially envisaged. The second is the craft skill that sits alongside that of elicitation, that of analyses.
Nowadays, it is most likely that respondents (especially the under 45s) who volunteer to come along to a group discussion, friendship pair or depth interview, or who are willing for the researcher to observe them at home or down the pub have a fairly developed awareness of how marketing and advertising sets out to work upon them. They see themselves as making a distinctive contribution to the process rather than being acted upon by manipulative persuaders. They are skilled in the deployment of brand imagery for their own ends and have developed a critical eye for visual communication. A degree of self analysis is second nature and they have adopted the researchers projective questions for their own party games. They are more confident and expressive than previous generations. They are playfully interested in the future more than unthinking guardians of the past. In short, they have more in common with people in marketing and advertising than ever before.
The traditional criticisms about groups leading to inhibition or conservatism, about respondents feeling vulnerable to projective or personal questions, about groups being led by dominant respondents are all wider and wider from the mark. The awareness and confidence of contemporary consumers and the growing individualism of our society means that groups are livelier, more diverse, more spontaneous and more likely to spark original thoughts and new insights than every before.
There is, however, one dark cloud that threatens this halcyon picture of group discussion Nirvana. The contemporary marketplace is increasingly moving away from the mass and towards customization. This is not wholly positive for the consumer as increasingly products/brands single you out rather than respecting your need for space to choose them or reject them. The outcome can be a greatly altered brand relationship; from one of primarily, emotional bonding to a much more rational needs-based targeting. A feeling of being singled out by a marketeer can lead to cynicism. When a single brand of margarine has 8 product variants and a toothpaste more than 11, consumers can become cynical about the whole process and it goes without saying that cynical consumers make for poor research.
Finally, turning to the craft of analysis, our elicitation skills alongside consumers playful sophistication give us rich material that is also diverse and contradictory. The craft of analysis is to make sense of what has been revealed by interpreting it and applying it to the marketing or communication problem the research was commissioned to shed light on. The researcher spends hours upon hours listening, classifying, conceptualising, challenging the research data both in the course of collecting it and afterwards.
The process allays marketing skills to people crunching skills borrowed from psychology and anthropology - usually not in an academic or theoretical way but in a more applied instinctive way. There has always been a black box element to analyses, to the business of shaping marketing direction from the diversity of response. After days of cogitation a compelling truth for this particular piece of research emerges - a truth that you know is a genuine application of the authentic response revealed in research.
The central place of interpretation and the consequential advice to management that arises from this means that you can not discuss qualitative research for very long without addressing the question What makes a Qualitative Researcher. The question is important because clients dont buy research as an anonymous or standardized service but buy individual researchers who they usually select on the basis of a relevant endorsement, be it either from an established research company or from the buyer community.
There is not one academic or business education route into a qualitative career. For every researcher with a psychology, anthropology or sociology background there are equally successful qualitative researchers with arts of business degrees. There are however a plethora of professional courses to introduce the craft skills and good practice to young researchers.
If the credentials of the researcher to proffer marketing advice are rarely questioned, does this suggest it is not an issue? Researchers who are plausible, relevant and insightful are the ones who survive in the competitive marketplace. And whatever debate rages about methodological issues I know that the plausibility and insight of my own analytical contribution rests squarely upon the spontaneous comments from respondents in group discussions.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, November 2004
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004