As we move into 2007, qualitative researchers need to be aware of a range of trends and developments that will impact upon what we do and how we do it, and think through the implications on how we connect with consumers and citizens. Too often, we take a slightly inward perspective on the state of our craft. Our aim here is to show an ‘outside-in’ perspective on new thinking.

Sustainability and what we do

In the past 12 months, we have seen issues around the environment and sustainability move from being a niche concern to a mainstream debate. Climate change, once stereotyped as the preserve of sandal-wearing environmentalists, will now be a political battleground at the next General Election. Political attention has found its echo in business, with brands and blue-chips scrambling to emphasise their green credentials. Tesco’s ‘Bag for Life’ is a case in point, as is Ariel’s campaign on energy-saving through washing at a lower temperature.

This shift in attitudes around sustainability should impact our industry. Not least, we need to think about our own behaviours. For example, what kind of carbon footprint is left from national and international travel by us and our respondents? If BSkyB can become carbon neutral, surely most qualitative agencies could, too. The MRS Conference this year will be carbon-neutral, and this is a trend that is set to grow in importance — especially as clients will increasingly ask about firms’ environmental policies.

But sustainability goes further than a narrow environmental remit. Sustainability as a concept is about using resources in the most sensitive and careful way — and is re-shaping consumer products, manufacturing practices, architecture and design. We need to have a debate within the industry about what sustainability means to us — for a start, it is surely about treating people as people, and not as ‘lab rats’.

Is it about telling research participants about the decisions that have been made as a result of their efforts? Is it encouraging clients to have longer, more ongoing conversations with research participants, while avoiding the risks around creating ‘focus group junkies’? Is it about being more open and transparent about what we actually do in the analysis and interpretation stage?

The impact of new technology

Another area of interest is, of course, the ever-changing scene on the technology front, and the way in which our respondents are interacting with society as a result. We need to be acutely conscious of how technological change is altering the relationship between consumers and businesses.

Sites such as You Tube, mySpace and blogs in general provide people with a platform for communications. Traditional media routes are now competing with virtual spaces in which forward-looking brands have already found their space. Think of how the music industry is learning to deal with the proliferation of personal music marketing on You Tube or other social networking spaces. Smart organisations are tapping into technology and related social network development by setting up virtual spaces for dialogue with brand aficionados and enthusiasts.

And what does this all mean for qualitative researchers? Well, whereas we used to be one of few mediators between brands and customers, these new approaches are allowing people to create direct relationships with brands. To ensure that we remain relevant in this environment, we will need to show participants more recognition for taking part in research (in the same way people feel recognition when they write a blog), and connect with people more as fellow creators rather than passive respondents.

This shift towards treating people as fellow strategists is a major area of change in both public and corporate sector research. Public sector researchers are pioneering new approaches in co-production — where policymakers, service providers, and citizens/consumers work together to develop shared solutions. These methods stand in direct contrast to the old model of treating public service users as mere observers. Co-production techniques are also taking root in the corporate sphere.

We can see the value of co-production in the design industry, where designers are bringing users into the fold and involving them in the design process that creates a great product or service. Already the Design Council and its designers have together with citizens piloted solutions to issues and services, including diabetes treatment, citizenship and energy efficiency.

As co-production techniques become the norm and not the exception, they also become the modus operandi of experts from industries competing with market research. As qualitative research moves forward it must grapple with competitive challenges of this nature, and effectively communicate both the benefits of research and embrace collaboration with other professions.

All things neuroscience

In parallel to new collaborative approaches, we have also seen a growing interest in approaches that revolve around neuroscience. Much has been made of brain-imaging techniques and neuro-marketing. We need to be sceptical of such approaches — at the end of the day, no brain scan is going to replace traditional insight-gathering. In addition we should be conscious of growing anxieties around consumer privacy. As new technology allows for a greater monitoring of human activity, we need to be prepared to answer tougher questions on how we protect people’s privacy and information.

Neuroscience methodologies are, though, immensely relevant when it comes to thinking about cutting through information overload or, to use media thinker David Shenk’s phrase, “data smog”. As we increasingly work in situations where brands are aiming to gain attention in a crowded media space, discovering the emotional shortcuts and powerful symbols to capture attention will continue to grow in importance. A more scientific understanding of how the mind functions, and the role of heuristics, needs to be a priority for all researchers.