The difference a clip makes
Getting to grips with technology can make all the difference to qual but what, asks Alison Drury, is the client's take?
In the 40 years since qualitative research took on the commercial world our industry has matured. Research into usage and attitudes, behaviour and motivation has been overtaken by semiotics; NLP and brand theory premised on Big Fish or genetic engineering. Qualitative researchers have the ear of the great and the good.
But ask yourself this. Hands up. Who still uses a trusty audio tape recorder to record those all important interviews? Who means to go on that course to learn how to insert digital files into PowerPoint? Some will be amazed that this is the basis of an article - people who realise that YouTube is not a brand of personalised toothpaste and use it to pepper presentations with quirky content.
There are, however, many others whose response to a telephone interview project is to wonder how they can sellotape their microphone to the receiver without poking their eye out.
Two extreme camps
Talk to qualitative researchers and two extreme camps emerge. The first comprises individuals with the same attitude to technology in research as in life. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And for goodness sake don't even think about changing or upgrading it.
The second camp absorbs technology through a process of pain-free osmosis. Looking up one day they notice they now own the latest Olympus digital recorder; store their computer files on a remote secure server and edit digital footage to insert 'real people' into their presentations at the touch of a button.
The rest of us probably fall in the middle and so it seems important to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using the fruits of technology to support our craft skills. What do clients think when faced with presentations that use internet resources and edited footage to illuminate findings?
Helen Weavers of Real World Planning makes the point that "we are such a visual culture. I have definitely observed high attention levels when imagery is used. (Especially) going beyond pictures to use film clips definitely impresses". Using visual materials that enhance understanding is more persuasive than death by PowerPoint. It also helps the presenter's standing by attracting a degree of awe particularly in an audience of peers who are thinking "Goodness, why can't I do that?"
From a client perspective, visual clips enliven a presentation, bringing to life audience segments or lifestyles better than words or pictures alone. Just as importantly non researchers in an organisation experience a vivid, easily digestible picture of unfamiliar consumers.
Jo Hamilton, head of measurement at BBC Audience Research believes that, in her world, visual feedback helps to make findings involving and credible. "I have always encouraged the use of visuals in presentation as I think it brings the story to life and clients can see and hear the audience first hand. It adds so much more to the bog standard PowerPoint charts, which can look dry, particularly for a non-research audience." Galvanising creativity
International companies routinely use this kind of material to galvanise worldwide creativity in their employees and agencies in local markets and to sell the unifying concept of product usage or lifestyle on which they want to focus their global marketing.
Where difficulties and doubts emerge is when visual materials are used as substitutes for words and quotes, adding nothing to the quality or communication of the presentation. Weavers says, "I have sometimes been disappointed with the quality of what you get ...because in the advertising world you get spoilt re production quality ...I suspect there is a difference between the reality of rather incoherent respondents and the more staged material you get for a pitch or sales conference."
Several researchers suggest countering this by re-interviewing the best respondents after a research project focusing on their, now semi-scripted, comments to make precisely the right points.
Small companies and freelancers may have the expertise to film and edit materials but time is the real cost. Do clients want to pay for this extra work? Equally as importantly, do they want researchers to be diverted from their core business of analysis and insight? Drusilla Gabbott of Oxygen Brand Consulting makes the point that editing is a profession in its own right. Many qualitative debriefs cannot justify the time cost involved in effectively editing materials to make pithy points.
In an international context, Gabbott and her partner in Oxygen, Stephen Pickthall, have the added problem of consumer insight expressed in many languages. Content created across multiple video formats has to be edited and dubbed into English which is more than most qualitative researchers can cope with.
Solutions involve taking a professional cameraman around the globe or doing all the work on one format and editing it personally without becoming obsessional. Even this approach can go awry, as one researcher recalls. Mothers in a group were professionally miked up, only to find the recording obscured by the sound of slurping babies' breastfeeding throughout.
Getting to grips with technology can put real pressure on us. Budget remains the key issue, whether this is the time taken to pay others such as "a little man that does" or the time taken to DIY. We can get smart by being aware of existing internet footage we can cut and paste. At the very least we can all make sure we know the basics and avoid the fate of one research company which managed to bring down a client's server by sending across a presentation packed with visual insight and far too many megabytes.
Managing Director, Thinkvivid Ltd
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, May 2007
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2007