Researchers need creative techniques to distil the truth from what consumers say and what they really mean, says Ben Scales
Were all experts at the art of creative elaboration. It could be to protect someones feelings or to make us feel better about ourselves, but the chances are that everyone manipulates the truth a little from time to time. So why should respondents be any different? Indeed, considering the unique pressures of the focus group environment, its likely that creative elaboration is more widespread than in normal life
As seasoned qualitative researchers, experience tells us that certain topics are likely to influence more creative responses, especially in the group environment. A recent project we ran for a leading household cleaner demonstrated that peer pressure and the desire to look good in front of others created a warped picture of their behaviour.
Once one respondent had claimed they bleached their toilet daily the entire group followed suit. How did we know this wasnt accurate? Individual cleaning diaries completed prior to the group indicated otherwise. Yet if wed relied on insight from the group alone wed have had a skewed view of usage habits.
So hygiene (household and personal) is a topic best handled sensitively, but it doesnt stop there. The pressure to be seen to be a good parent can often drive people to make inaccurate claims about the healthiness of their familys diet.
And increasingly, green issues are also making their way on to the list of subjects likely to provoke creative responses. Yet this area tends to be less about exaggeration and more about the spirit of good intention. As the need to care for our environment begins to take root in the collective conscience, respondents may claim to be green but do they follow this through in their everyday lives?
A recent study, exploring ways to reduce our dependency on plastic bottles, showed that consumers were passionate about the concept of reusing bottles. When presented with ways this might work, however, respondents were ambivalent. In theory, they engaged with the concept but the solutions seemed too much like hard work — a case of practicality overriding principle.
Not all discrepancy between thought and action is conscious or rational, though. For example, at The Big Picture weve explored how consumers shop in supermarkets and have found the majority of purchases are made on autopilot.
Its not surprising, when faced with the weekly trawl round Tesco, consumers want to get in and out as quickly as possible. They simply grab and go, with little attention given to why they chose what they did. So how can we expect respondents to tell us how they behave when theyre not even sure?
Therefore, whether its a conscious act to create a certain impression or the simple fact they are unaware of their actions, we have our work cut out when it comes to deciphering what respondents really do from what they claim to do. There are, of course, techniques we can use so as to extract the truth.
On the most basic level an awareness of the greater risk of elaboration around certain subjects can help us plan for the inevitable. For example, depth interviews rather than group discussions create a less intimidating atmosphere and could encourage more genuine responses. This, however, is not always practical so its also important to devise ways to ensure that the group environment encourages open and honest responses.
Natural form of censorship
Friendship or family cells provide a natural form of censorship. After all, its hard to exaggerate about your behaviour when youve got someone sitting next to you who knows you well. And lets not forget simple techniques such as self-completion exercises, as these can help get individual perspectives free from the influence of group pressures.
This is all well and good when it comes to dealing with conscious creative elaboration, but what about when respondents are unaware of their behaviour? Visual research experts, such as iD Magasin, argue that observation is a great way to combat this issue.
An example they use to illustrate discrepancy between claimed behaviour and action is when they filmed a man at the deodorant fixture in a supermarket and watched how he spent a number of minutes examining and testing different products.
When stopped and questioned about how he purchased deodorant he replied that it only took him 10 seconds to choose and he always bought the same product. And if this reaction occurs only moments from the point of purchase, what hope is there for any genuine recall in a group that may take place days later? There may have been dozens of reasons why he chose it, he just doesnt happen to remember them.
Perhaps we could look elsewhere for inspiration? A recent article on airline security highlighted the work of Professor Paul Ekman, a leading expert in the study of microexpressions — the fleeting expressions that flash involuntarily across our faces that subtly betray our inner feelings.
Although learning to read these microexpressions can take years to master, the principles behind the discipline could be employed in qualitative research. Observing a respondents body language or tone of voice could help us understand what they are really thinking.
So the fact that respondents are creative with the truth should be taken as a given. We cant be complacent and simply write this off as part of the process. The impetus lies with us as researchers to be as creative as possible with the techniques we use to elicit the truth.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2008
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008