A while back, there was a demand from clients for research approaches that enabled their colleagues to meet consumers directly. This was often called consumer closeness.

Around this time I developed an approach that I have used quite a few times and that might be of interest to fellow qualitative researchers. For reasons that will be explained, it’s called SpeedMeet.

Added value extra

Just to be clear, it isn’t a substitute for standard research methods — but is a powerful supplement that can be used where appropriate.

It can be used with any type of client audiences who would benefit from the visceral insights, and sometimes salutary lessons, that you only get from direct contact with consumers. I have used it with a wide range of different sorts of clients, from relatively new members of staff to Boards of Directors. In each case they have found it enjoyable, enlightening and frankly have sometimes been euphoric afterwards.

What is the format, then? In essence I had the idea of combining a short standard focus group session with something that was all the rage a few years back — speed dating.

In the first half an hour or so, the moderator conducts a group section on whatever the client is interested in, with the latter watching from behind the mirror, giving them an initial feeling for the themes and the people.

Move along please

Then for the remaining hour or so we mix up the respondents and the clients. Assuming we have about eight clients and eight respondents, we can let each meet for about six to seven minutes and then move them on. By the end, every client should have interviewed every respondent.

Some clients have found that this one-on-one approach can be slightly intimidating (I think for the respondents but just possibly themselves, too!) and thus prefer to do it in pairs — two clients to two respondents for around fifteen minutes each, and then move on again.

Work with the clients has to be conducted beforehand to ensure that each one has maybe a specific area to explore, and perhaps three or four set questions. They can augment these with others based on what they hear in the opening group discussion section. The worst thing is if clients basically all ask the same questions as each other, or indeed have no questions prepared.

One of the most revealing parts is that the consumers are encouraged to ask the clients questions about anything that they are interested in, would like to find out more about, or might even be dissatisfied with. The clients are, in effect, put on the spot and have to explain, for example, why they do or do not do certain things. This can often make them think things through which they had forgotten or were not completely convinced by themselves. Their consciences can be well and truly awakened!

The hardest parts for the moderator are:

  • Ensuring that the clients, especially really senior ones, do move on when their time is up. They can get deeply involved in a particular interaction and wish to carry it on. You have to be polite but firm and stress the need to keep to the timings, otherwise the entire arrangement will go awry.
  • Making sure you work out a proper rotation so that each client or pair of clients does meet each or each pair of respondents. You can’t be wholly laissez-faire about this as it does not always work out naturally.

Some other tips and ground rules:

  • At the recruitment stage, explain that the respondents will meet clients (just in case they don’t want to, although of course in groups in viewing facilities most consumers are wondering why the observers don’t come in and speak to them directly).
  • Make sure clients know they are there to learn and just get a feel for consumer issues. They still need formal research.
  • Make sure you explain our industry’s rules and best practices and anonymity, confidentiality and basic respect, and the need to avoid further contact after the session.
  • Liaise with the viewing facilities — you need to let them fully understand what you want to do so you can work out how best to use the available space. You might want to book the largest room for example. Or you might be able to get a breakout area and split the interviews across two areas.

Talk at the top table

Rather than a traditional debrief, I run a follow-up session with the clients where they share their experiences. This is usually along the lines of what they learnt, what surprised them, and what actions they can take. With the most senior clients, this usually takes place as a slot within Board meetings. Besides the other benefits of SpeedMeet, it also means that we get to discussions at the top table, which is something many researchers say they wish to do.

In case anybody needs further encouragement, it is quite fun watching everyone else asking questions for a change, and telling clients to move on.