The Association for Qualitative Research
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No longer the poor relation

Itıs time for homework to be seen in a new light, argues Kirsty Boyce. Such tasks can deliver hugely rich insights

Homework has historically suffered from a 'Cinderella' syndrome, particularly compared to other methodologies. This may be due to the fact that such tasks were often unseen by clients, the least expensive methodology and only used as an add-on/supplement or as a warm-up exercise (not that these aren't invaluable roles) .

Yet in the past couple of years we've noticed a real shift. As an agency we're using homework tasks more than ever, increasingly as a means of exploring consumers' lives in-depth. Our clients, meanwhile, have a growing appetite for such tasks, while respondents are providing us with more depth than ever before. So what's happening?

More engaging tasks

Well it might just simply be because we've made tasks more engaging. Most consumers are willing to provide us with a wealth of information if the task is fun and stimulating, and pitched in the right way. In fact, respondents tell us that they actually enjoy having a project to engage with. And don't underestimate tasks that rely on good old paper and sticky tape, as many consumers relish earning their 'Blue Peter badge'. It can certainly be fun to get away from technology, at least for a while.

Or maybe we've just worked out how to really incentivise respondents. Sometimes money works best, sometimes the audience may be more motivated by mobile phone vouchers; giving a prize to the respondent who completes the 'best task' may also help them raise their game.

I like to think, however, that consumers are engaging more readily with homework tasks because society has evolved. We all complain that we have limited time to contemplate and consider, and listen to one another nowadays. Homework tasks give us the 'excuse' to think about our lives or a topic in greater depth, and tell others what we think.

Some teenagers have told us that completing a task made them feel that they were 'really being really listened to (for a change)', and adult respondents have also commented that they're really excited that 'someone is interested in (their) life and what (they) do'.

We've seen hugely rich personal insights uncovered in tasks. Here are a couple of examples just to give you a flavour:

  • In a task exploring gifting, one woman explained how the recent death of her father had led to her choice of Christmas gift to her mother. She revealed that she had bought a jewellery box that played the lullaby her father used to sing to her when she was a baby. Not only did this make the researchers working on the project reach for the box of Kleenex, it gave us a real insight into the importance of sentimentality when gifting between mother and daughter, and it provided the client with a tangible example of what 'sentimentality' translates to in a gift.

  • In a project looking at teenagers' lives, one teenager had written about how he felt when his father was sent to prison. He had even glued a picture of his father in his scrapbook with the message 'this is my dad, please can you return the picture to me as it's the only good one I have'. The insights from these tasks gave us/the client a 'real' snapshot of teenagers' lives today, both the happy and the sad moments, and ensured that the client saw teenagers as individuals.

What benefits?

But what are the benefits to the client, what is the value of homework tasks in research terms (beyond the obvious benefits of cost effectiveness and adding/supplementing findings)?

Well, homework tasks can help us to get up 'close and personal' (and at a reasonable cost to the client, which always goes down well). We've seen them work well to uncover 'personal truths' because they remove the respondent from 'social' judgement, as neither the researcher nor their peers are present.

The homework task gives consumers a framework in which they can be themselves, without fear of exposure or a client emerging from behind the two-way mirror. More importantly, such tasks allow respondents to engage in the research process in their own time, on their own terms and in their own environment. It's an approach which certainly allows us greater access to real-life attitudes and behaviour. In this respect homework tasks can take on a pseudo ethnographic role.

They also provide us with the opportunity to 'individualise' rather than 'generalise' customers. The large amount of data gathered within homework tasks allows us to pull apart a target audience more easily. This means that case studies of different customer types can be created, something that our clients are increasingly demanding.

Bring the consumer to life

And finally they also help to bring the consumer to life (within presentations). Essentially the tasks are completed in respondents' own words, without the researcher translating. In addition, technology can be used to great effect. Asking respondents to take pictures of their favourite things, record a diary entry on dictaphone/video camera each day provides even greater richness. And the photos and clips can be used within the presentation to illustrate points.

It is, however, worth treading with care here; don't underestimate the power of traditional methods such as the good old diary as for some a video camera can be a little too obtrusive!

So it's worth keeping in mind the value of homework tasks and exploring their full potential, particularly as a means of helping us to get closer to the consumer.


Kirsty Boyce
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008