I attended my first AQR Big Day Out with the mix of excitement, curiosity and mild trepidation that accompanies any unusual day trip. I was hoping for fun, stimulation and good company, but beyond that didn’t know what to expect. I’m thrilled to report it went well beyond my wildest hopes and was an uplifting career affirming experience! It proved much more exhilarating than a pleasant research excursion. It delivered an intense burst of inspiration and learning, boosting my faith in our ability as qualitative researchers and commissioners to challenge, evolve insight practice and have a keen eye for nuance. I was struck by the blend of digital/tech methods with enduring use of face-toface approaches referenced, and cheered by the ongoing relevance of group discussions as a much valued eliciting forum.

Guts and eloquence

The caliber of enquiry was striking right from the start, beginning with The Young Disruptors session. The speakers displayed admirable eloquence, guts and content quality, particularly since they had only three years’ experience or less under their belts. Jack Ellingham kicked off by challenging us to consider why neuro-marketing can trigger resistance among qual researchers and to reassure us that the interpretation aspect of understanding brain responses hasn’t been cracked by neuroscience just yet.

Next up, Laura Calvert extolled the benefits of panel participation as a rewarding experience for members within an online community who enjoy contributing and feeling part of a collective endeavor. JJ Tomlinson was strikingly thought provoking with his expertise on how best to find, interview and engage hard-to reach audiences in research. The professionalism and humility he expressed around interacting with people from the alt-right movement was admirable and his speaker prowess justly earned him the Young Disruptor’s prize.

The morning progressed with a strong session on inclusivity, prompting some of us to glance around furtively and weigh up the diversity in the room. Ella Fryer-Smith provoked us to consider hacking the qual community to bring about greater diversity of socio-economic backgrounds represented across agencies and client roles. She asserted the benefit of bringing more varied perspectives and providing career opportunities that might extend to people who’ve chosen to go down an apprenticeship or vocational route instead of accessing university.

Keisha Herbert took up the reigns of representation further by exploring the impact and power of reflexivity. This serves as an important reminder to be aware of the impact we may have on any given research audience based on the rapport and eliciting effect we have when we show up and the subjectivity biases and opportunities we may bring to our work. Jason Vir then deftly changed tack by sharing different angles on how to interpret media representation based on a fascinating study for the BBC. He generously shared his triangular model around the different attributes a specific audience member may have when considering representation: feeling mirrored, caring about who we see and how we may be seen on-screen. Afra Aqua and Hamish Kynoch ably brought the session to a close by inspiring us to explore people’s values as an alternative way of looking at audiences meaningfully.

Crawford Hollingworth energised us after lunch by sharing the highlights of The Behavoural Architects’ winning AQR Prosper Riley-Smith Qualitative Excellence Award paper on transforming The Big Issue’s fortunes. TBA identified how to overcome a drop in magazine uptake as a result of a shift to donating behaviour, through getting buyers to understand and re-enter a give and take relationship. He demonstrated how a simple nudge, like putting the price boldly on the front and back of the seller’s waistcoat, could prime prospective buyers into a transactional state irrespective of the urge to make eye contact with the seller. He roused us all to make a public pledge to be takers and rewarded us by handing out badges we can all sport to advertise our willingness.

The break from Brexit angst we’d enjoyed across the day by cocooning in our qualitative community ended when Tom Clarkson shared his exploration of modern British identity through Brexit diaries. Luke Perry expanded our minds around moral identity in today’s Britain and took us through a great moral framework model by Jonathan Haidt which helps us all understand the moral judgments of others with beautiful clarity.

Middle ground benefits

Sarah Jay then brought a refreshingly passionate view around the benefits of looking for the middle ground to help unify us in these polarised times. She characterised social media as being a place of virtue signalling, talking rather than listening and fomenting division rather than being a forum for middle ground expression. I took comfort in Sarah’s reminder that there are many treasured brands who do strive to address the middle ground such as Specsavers, Compare the Market and McDonald’s.

The last session, on Humans and Androids, meant the day ended on a high. It was eye opening hearing from Catherine Crump and Iva Kralj-Taylor about how Disney undertook filming families to understand fully how time is spent in the home vs relying on recall or limited occasions. Charlotte Coleman painted a compelling picture of the virtues of building up a film database and the benefits of tagging and then Jim Mott closed with a provocation around more mess being a good thing in research because it can lead to new understanding. As I left, I could only hope we didn’t have to wait another two years for our next Big Day Out.