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The sofa that started as an experiment

Matt Lynch, partner at The Big Sofa, on why impromptu conversations with no obvious commercial benefit now appeal to companies for internal and external communications.

What is the big sofa?

The Big Sofa started out as an experiment four years ago. What if we went out and had impromptu conversations with people on their own terms?

  • Would anyone sit down and talk to us?
  • What kind of things would they want to talk about?
  • How open would they be?
  • What would it feel like for them?

We also wanted to film our conversations, partly for our own understanding, but also as a communication tool for any clients who might be interested.

We had no clients when we started, so we were free to experiment with conversations and filming techniques to develop an approach that integrated the two. That's now second nature to us, but it took a long time to get the design right.

We found that people were more than happy to sit down and talk. So we followed their lead and decided take the Sofa round the country, building up a record of real conversations about the things that really mattered to people.

That seemed like a good idea, although not an astoundingly commercial one. At some point, we hoped, clients would become interested in what we were doing.

The consumer agenda

The conversations we have cover a huge range of issues, from those that we know are of direct client interest, to those that matter to the person we're speaking to but which would never appear on a brief.

We could be talking to the same person about the customer service they receive from their bank, bringing up children, dieting — anything that's relevant to them at the time. That's how people talk in real life. It's often a matter of giving our interviewees the freedom to talk. The conversation meanders and you need to go with it.

This means unlearning some research practices. It's not about incessant probing, laddering or pinning people down. It's about allowing people to reveal what they want to in their own time. Of course, there's a balance to strike between rambling, self-absorbed monologues and content that will be of interest and obviously we try get that balance right.

Some challenges

There are lots of practical aspects to consider, e.g. getting permission to film, consent forms, location strategy, film quality and sound, plus training a team of professional conversationalists, as we call our interviewers.

There's a huge amount of production involved, so we now have had to evolve as a film and production business, as well as a research and consulting business. Our aim from the start has been on how you create insightful but watchable outputs, so both research and film purists have to practice a bit of humility.

Equally, as the amount of content grows, the task becomes how to make these conversations accessible to our clients. So we invested in software that allows people to find and share the bits they want. We are constantly looking at ways of improving this. Perpetual beta just about sums it up.

Reactions to interviewing

For those invited to sit on The Big Sofa, conversations tend to be seen as enjoyable and unusual. But what is the reaction of those who carry out the interviewing? Here is a cross-section of comments.

"From a conversationalist's point of view, being on the sofa is about being in the present moment."

"The nice thing about it is when people say 'thanks for that' or 'I enjoyed that' or 'I'm glad I did it', or even, in some in cases, 'thanks for the therapy' while shaking my hand."

"It's a bit like a magical mystery tour. I don't always know the destination, but it's the journey towards serendipity that intrigues me."

"My experience and knowledge of who the public are on a personal level has been enriched thanks to the conversations I have had there and the amazing characters I have met. What's more exciting is being a part of such an interesting and potentially revolutionary project which takes social research to a whole new level."

"The informality of the conversations takes away the power relations between 'researcher' and 'researched' that I've come across before, and as a result it feels like a 'real' conversation. It also seems to be genuinely enjoyable for both participants and conversationalists!"

The future

We're seeing increasing demand for film-making and conversational skills within client organisations, i.e. talking to employees as well as consumers. We notice that those now in management positions intuitively 'get' what we're doing, and understand how video can be a force for organisational improvement. Video content drives engagement, especially if it shows genuine conversations about what it's really like to work somewhere.

The combination of digital technology and naturalistic outputs is compelling, but it doesn't sit easily with a traditional, 'command and control' approach to research or management. That's the challenge that real conversations present.

 

Matt Lynch
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012