The use of pictures in qualitative research

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 2, 2009 by Cristi Popa

collage In qualitative research we tend to rely to some extent on images – may them be pictures or movies. Why? In no specific order:

• To impress clients. In this strategy, clients are seen as less than knowledgeable in research, they have their own “superficial” agenda (increasing sales, confirming their own hunches and thus get a raise etc.) and the attention span of a 10 year old (they are too tired/ bored/ lazy to follow an interview/ IDI so you need to “spice” it up a little. So you throw in a couple of collages/ picture sorting exercises.

• To have a pretext for starting/ animating a conversation. Pictures can be used either at the beginning of a group discussion (let’s say “choose from this stack of photos one that represents you and explain to the group the reasons for which you choose that picture”) or towards its end as an “energizing” exercise if people start to get bored/ tired.

• To elicit some data that otherwise (through discussion) would be overseen. In this strategy the assumption is that there are some ideas, feelings, emotions that are too subtle, too sensitive or evasive to be captured in words. Pictures come in as ways to get more information from respondents. So one can ask respondents to take some photos of let’s say their workplace if that’s our focus, or the places where they hang out etc. Or they can be asked to make/ cut out pictures that represent their position on different matters of interest: pictures that reflect their feelings when waiting to be checked in on airports, or which express how they feel when they are discriminated etc. Pictures thus selected serve as a baseline for the further discussion in which respondents account for the meanings they embed in those pictures. So, for example let’s say we are exploring the relationship between consumers and let’s say a refreshing drink brand. We select 10 respondents and ask each of the to take/ print from the web/ cut off from magazines 3 pictures that best describe their feelings towards that brand. Then in a one-on-one interview we take the photos the respondent brings and we explore the meanings invested in them. Let’s say that one picture shows an arm with a syringe in it. This might go like this: “Why this picture? Well it depicts what I’m feeling when I finish a bottle of X. I feel guilty because I realize that I’m poisoning myself. The sugar, all the additives are bad for me. But, still it’s like I’m hooked on it. I cannot go to sleep until I’ve finished the bottle….”. And then the moderator can go: “Why do you think it is bad for you?/ What do you mean by hooked” etc. and peel off the meanings of that photo which actually is an account of respondent’s relationship with the product/ brand/ etc. The same can be the routine for collages made in the middle of the interview or other photo exercises.

• To provide the researcher and finally the client with some peaks into respondents’ lives (bits of reality to either illustrate or to support the research findings). In here we already assume we have the meaning independent of the pictures (from the use of other methods) but we use pictures to support our findings, to give the report a more “life like” effect. So if we are talking about teenagers’ habits in engaging technology, after doing some interviews, after spending some time with them in their homes to see how they go about the subject, we also take some pictures of them listening to music, using a computer etc, to insert in the report. Nevertheless, at the data level they are worthless as they add no new knowledge to our account of the subject.

• To “test” them. This is the case for evaluating commercials, posters etc. In this case what we actually do is to check whether the respondents decode the stimuli (picture/ film/ text) as intended by the producers of those stimuli. In other words, we check if they adhere to the preferred reading of those pictures as it was formulated by the producers. This goes in the lines of: “What did you understand from this clip? Well it is about two guys competing for the attention of an attractive young girl by offering her beverage X. It tells us that if you want to get girls you need to invest in this drink…”. And let’s presume that this is not the intended manner to read this message. Then the researcher will state that this is not working and that the commercial is not in line with the associations consumers generally make with a beverage and specifically with the X brand.

So one can conclude that we do consider that a picture is worth a thousand words. Still, those words belong to those that invest meaning in them – respondents. To us, those pictures are mute until the respondents speak for them.
Moreover, one also could think that we can actually do without pictures for the first four bullets. We can impress clients by using other means than pictures (maybe some cool fancy software or some good wine in the viewing room?). Also, we can find other pretexts to spark up a conversation. And we can leave aside the illustrative role pictures might have in relation to our findings. Also, the disclosure pictures might facilitate can be imagined to be obtainable through the use of other objects: written accounts of respondents, drawings, music etc. I for one can imagine asking a respondent to bring some music that best describes his feelings towards some minority: “So why did you choose this song? Well it starts very powerful and brutal and reminds me of how we talk about a member of that minority when we first meet him/ her. But then the music goes softer, becomes more gentle and harmonious and that reminds me of all those people whom I got to know a little better and with whom I coexist in harmony although they are different…”.

So are pictures out of the picture? Not by far. And Gillian Rose in “Visual Methodologies – An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials” gives some fascinating accounts of what we can do with pictures starting from the evidence that our world becomes more and more visual.

For one, we can actually look at them. We are in the habit of analyzing just one site of meaning making: the audience, the meanings respondents derive from pictures. But as Rose points out, there are two other important sites of meaning: that of the production of that image and that of the image itself. And the methodologies implied by these other sites range from content analysis to semiotics, psychoanalytic approaches or discourse analysis.

Let’s return to the beverage X. Remember that we’ve asked people to bring us images of their relationship with that brand. Maybe that if we take a good look at those pictures we could see that all the images contained a reference to the body (lips, arms, stomachs etc.). Or that in most images actually showing the action of drinking there was always only one person. Maybe if we go a step forward we’ll realize that this drink is associated with guilt and shame and thus is not seen as suitable for drinking with friends or family. Or maybe we’ll see that it is more associated with different moments of the day. Or we could take a number of influential magazines and look at how they are portraying beverages in general. Do they emphasize the thirst element? Or the health? Are they showing mostly the product or its supposed beneficiary? Are they colored or black and white? Or we can make a little trip in history and see what refreshment meant 20, 30, 50 years ago. How were these products depicted or advertised in those days? Has anything changed? What? Why? Or when we analyze a commercial maybe we can go beyond checking the boxes provided by the agency and actually understand the embedded meanings from that ad, confront them against the general symbols used in this kind of ads or generally in relation to our product/ brand/ habit.

These are just some of the questions Gillian Rose’s book can shed some light on.

Getting the 100% participation rate

Posted in Qualitative research recruitment with tags , , , on June 4, 2009 by Cristi Popa

E014841Recruitment used to be somewhat of a mystery to me. I knew that I have to make up my mind and decide what kind of respondents I need and then go to the recruitment department and ask for them. In a couple of days I would enter the moderation room and the respondents would be there. Magic! Or not entirely, as sometimes the fairy godmother failed to fulfill my requests and brought me professional respondents (i.e. chameleonic people which can assume different colors, shapes and consumption habits. Moreover they tend to have a very complex relationship with the recruitment departments, relationships which resemble those described in Gomorrah by Garrone)
But recently I started finding myself in a new situation: recruiting for myself. It is a very hard job I have to say. You need to walk the streets, the malls, shopping centers etc. The weather tends to become a very important factor of the project, as well as the shoes you are wearing and the battery levels of your mobile. So, you might wonder: why bother?

• First of all you get exactly the respondents you need. No more professional respondents or persons who passed the screeners (the income, profession, psychographics screens) but who have nothing to do with the people you are looking for. You can see how they are dressed, where they are, with whom, you can talk to them and find out much more about them than the recruitment questionnaire would ever tell you.

• Secondly, with this occasion you can take a look around and actually see where the people you are looking for hang around, what do they do, how they consume the products within your interest category etc.

• Thirdly, you have the opportunity to create a personal connection with the respondent. The recruitment process no longer takes an objective shape where some people are selected and asked to present themselves at a certain place and time for an interview/ focus group, but rather a conversation which is finalized with an invitation to talk some more.

By doing so, you will now have a conversation partner in the group and not a “subject”. The most visible, measurable benefit is the time you gain in the FG/ IDI by bypassing the warming up section. Although not so easily measurable, you will also see a more pregnant tendency to get involved, to help, both during the IDIs/ FGs and in the recruitment process. And in here lies the 100% rate.
Here are a couple of tips I find useful to get to this rate:

1. Walk the streets – recruit by yourself. I know that it is not feasible for most of you (many projects, tons of tasks etc.) to singlehandedly recruit for an entire project. But try it for a couple of hours. If you have an easy target you can try it on your way home, or when you do your shopping etc. At least you will find out how a “real” (as in “not professional”) respondent looks and talks, the places where your target can be found and the way they naturally engage in the activity you are interested in.

2. Stay in touch with the people you recruited. Give them your messenger ID, e-mail address or whatever means they can use to find you easily. Maybe they want to know a little more about the project they’re in, or they just want to be reminded the date of the IDI/ FG. Anyway, it will not take you to much time and it will give them the impression that they really matter to you.

3. Be flexible when you can. I’m talking especially about timings here. The main issues I have with my respondents are the day and hour of the IDI/ FG. Traffic jams, family quarrels, arguments with bosses and so many other things can intervene. Try to keep an open mind and not to discard the respondent on the spot. Maybe you can reschedule that IDI for later on, or maybe you can start the FG 15 minutes earlier. Or maybe you can do that IDI in a coffee shop near his/ her home and they do not really have to cross the whole town to get to your headquarters. All these details can help you in getting across the same idea of valuing them not only as info sources, but most importantly as human beings

4. Transform the whole process, from recruitment ‘till moderation, in a continuous relationship with no changes in tone. Try not to see recruitment as a different step of the research in opposition with moderation. And try to make respondents not to see it that way, also. So, do not apply a very close ended recruitment questionnaire and give them the impression they are taking an exam and… then expect them to be creative in group! Or vice versa, being very friendly and loose in recruitment and then striving to get some structure in groups. Try to really engage them, from the first second until you say thank you for your participation.

Any other suggestions on this? Sam Ladner has some interesting ones.

Letter from the Dragon Mountain

Posted in Qualitative research analysis with tags , , , , on March 30, 2009 by Cristi Popa

platypus1 In my latter post I was arguing that qualitative research should not relay on preconfigured models of analysis especially when coming to segmentations/ positioning. My plea has found a sympathetic ear in 近义词`s person and all platypuses are now declared endangered. Such despicable practices as cutting their tails off are now banned from the Dragon Mountain. Also, 近义词 announced me that in his wisdom he decided to rethink his analytical model. Although the great Dragon God didn`t allow him to share the model`s principals with us, he could provide us with a small sample of what this model can do in the context of a positioning study for one of the platypus food makers, HappyPlaty:

HappyPlaty brand is perceived as the most dominant, spontaneously creative and extrovert brand from its category. It is seen as an ambitious, courageous, strong willed, positive, independent, self-confident person.
The platypuses thought to be loyal users of this brand are seen as uncomplicated, knowing exactly what they want and using all their energies, creativeness and resolution to get it, as well as being certain that they will get whatever they are after.
Still, the brand is seen as also displaying a set of negative traits: extreme arrogance, autocratic pride, haughtiness, and excessive temper. When confronting its rivals, HappyPlaty will not hesitate to use cunning, lies and trickery to discredit them. Self-centeredness, greed for flattery, boastfulness and bombast, pomposity, snobbish superiority are also traits that were used to describe this brand.

Although I wasn’t blown away I have to admit that it made me curious. What model was he using? What were the dimensions on which the model was based? How many clear positions did it have?
I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I totally forgot about my family and friends. I was obsessed with this. The more scrolls I read, the more colleagues I asked, the more complicated and obscure the problem appeared to me. Until this morning, when finally I had a breakthrough.

At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so obvious, so simple…it was a stroke of genius. My friend 近义词 is using one major polarity – positive/masculine (extrovert) and negative/feminine (introvert). So he has two big spheres onto which he further applies four principles he calls fire, water, earth and air. In this manner he obtains 12 quadrants/ territories in which he distributes the brands.

I came across this when reading my horoscope here.

“The Leo type is the most dominant, spontaneously creative and extrovert of all the zodiacal characters. In grandeur of manner, splendor of bearing and magnanimity of personality, they are the monarch’s among humans as the lion is king of beasts. They are ambitious, courageous, dominant, strong willed, positive, independent, self-confident there is no such a word as doubt in their vocabularies, and they are self-controlled. Born leaders, either in support of, or in revolt against, the status quo. They are at their most effective when in a position of command, their personal magnetism and innate courtesy of mind bringing out the best of loyalty from subordinates. They are uncomplicated, knowing exactly what they want and using all their energies, creativeness and resolution to get it, as well as being certain that they will get whatever they are after.”

How many brands out there are running their strategies based on zodiacs even if they are called differently?

Qualitative research has to save the platypuses!

Posted in Qualitative research analysis with tags , , , on March 23, 2009 by Cristi Popa

platypusLong time ago in the second reign of the Chinese Emperor Chung Ling there was a qualitative researcher – 近义词 – who had to do a study on pet food. The pet food shop was owned by the king itself so there was no room for screwing-up.

近义词 was a master in the art of doing a special type of qualitative research – the Dragon research. Only few people in the kingdom knew it, as this art was taught only by the monks in the remote and dangerous caves on the Dragon Mountain.

The secret teaching of this art, the one guiding principle that could make anything clear for the Dragon qualitative researchers was that all animals could be included in one of the following categories: (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

In accordance with those categories the animals will eat a certain type of food at certain times.

One day, 近义词’s people accidentally recruited a platypus (for South Park fans, the manbearpig would do). They’ve never seen something like it. He looked at it, analyzed it, but something was not quite right. With all his experience and training he could not put this animal in any category with an easy heart. Sure it was not a suckling pig or a mermaid but it just broke a vase moments ago, could be that it belonged to the emperor and with that tail it could look like a fly in the distance.

After many, many days 近义词 had no clear answer and the emperor was getting tired of waiting.
In the end 近义词 decided to put the platypus in the category of animals that belong to the king. After all everything belonged to the king. So he should be safe. The next morning he would show his finding to the king and everything was going to be all right. Still that night he could not sleep. He felt as something was not right. That thing really looked like a fly in the distance. And the king surely is going to notice. There was only one thing to do: cut the platypus’ tail. This way it would look more like a bee in the distance. But there was still the vase problem. The broken vase. But maybe he could replace it with another one. Of course he could. He had an identical one. So the problem was gone.

This is the main drawback when using predefined models in analyzing research data. Most often the researcher will not even have the sleepless nights 近义词 had. He/ she will probably unconsciously disregard the data that conflicts with the model from the very beginning. If she/ he will suspect at some later point that the data just does not want to be put in the prepared boxes then the data will be modeled to fit. And even if the researcher is fully aware that he/ she is bending the data and finds it wrong, in all probability she/ he will not be able to step outside the predefined model as his/ hers only training was that of choosing which piece of data goes in what box.

Of course that there is no such thing as theory free research. All of us have their assumptions, our ways of making sense of the data, which always are impregnated with diverse theoretical elements.
And of course that any model is essentially different from reality in its simplicity (the whole map and territory thing). But none of those reasons gives us a license to think so narrow minded and to cut the platypuses tails.

So if you are very fond of Maslow, Freud, Jung, Dichter, Berne, Heylen, Adler or any other founding fathers of different models, if you think that:
• some brands are embodying the Leader archetype
• or are being used to resolve a tension between the society and self
• or that your brand resembles Grumpy while the competition brand looks like Sneezy
• that your brand is Hera while another reacts like Hephaestus
• that one brand is Kyle and another Cartman
try to look in your closets and number the tails you have in there only for the sake of some models.

Please save the platypuses.

The Gestapo qualitative research moderator

Posted in Qualitative research moderation with tags , , on February 20, 2009 by Cristi Popa

Here’s something I’ve stumbled on. It’s a year old, so probably many of you have seen it already. I find the presentation very interesting and honest. I think it tries to talk of some subjects more or less avoided by people in the research industry. Here you can find the author.

One point he makes in this presentation is that research is, more often than none, a dull and unpleasant process for respondents. Of course there are many reasons for this, but to me this idea brought back the Gestapo moderator’s image (kind of a Soup Nazi from Seinfeld).

It is very easy to recognize this type of moderator: most of the time the Gestapo moderator is very serious and focused. He knows exactly why he’s there and these good for nothing respondents would better behave. Cause he’s on the job.

There’s nothing more important to him than absolute control. He knows the guide by heart and in his whole career he never forgot a question. Not even once; unlike his no good colleagues who sometimes think they are having a chat with their mates and not doing market research. RESEARCH. But he knows his job. And he always gets the info the client wants. The info the client wants and the guide can get, that is. Because the guide is like a contract. The client approved it and he cannot expect anything more or less than that.

Anyhow, he likes his job. Sometimes he wishes it were a more precise job, but in the end a job is what you make of it. And this is RESEARCH. It’s kind of like science. He’s a kind of scientist with his faithful guide at hand, trying his best to squeeze the information out of his lab subjects. Sometimes he catches one of these pests lying. In those moments he whishes they were just guinea pigs. How he would zap them. But, unfortunately, they’re people.

“You’ve just told me you consume chocolate twice a week and now you’re telling me you are on a diet? Well, which one is it? You either are on a diet, or you do consume chocolate.”

In a way, she loves these moments. Now she can prove to the clients that she can challenge the respondents. She only whishes she had an interrogation lamp. How she would get the truth out!
“So, which one is it? When did you lie?” “Well… it’s a new diet, in which you are allowed to eat chocolate twice a week”.

“Eat – they don’t even know how to speak right. I asked her what she consumes. The chapter is called consumption habits and not eating time. Savages. But that’s ok. I only have 26 minutes left and I’m out of here. Anyhow, they already want to go home. They’re bored. Well, what did they think this was? Oktober fest? Maybe they were expecting champaign and stripers. Now way, this is RESEARCH. Almost a kind of science. And those bastard clients… probably half of them left and the other half is sleeping or updating their Facebook profiles. What were they expecting? A show? Stand-up comedy maybe? Well, not tonight, cause in here we do RESEARCH. If not a lamp I have to get me one of those leather whips at least.”

This is the Gestapo moderator. But rest assured. This is not an illness that’s spreading from moderator to moderator. It’s just how some people are taught to think about qualitative research.

This happens when you believe that just having a conversation with someone on whatever topic is to degrading to call work. And that you were meant for science. The bad news is that, besides traumatizing even a professional respondent, this type of moderators doesn’t actually get the information the client needs. People get bored, scared, intimidated, so they give you whatever plausible answer they can come up with. They just want the thing over, so they can get away.

So: be yourself, laugh, swear, scratch your nose if you feel like it, but do not make your respondents feel uncomfortable in any way. And the information will flow. All you have to do is to show them the route. In many cases a conversation guide goes a longer way than 10 books on qualitative research.

Going deeper underground in qualitative research

Posted in qualitative research theory with tags , , on February 11, 2009 by Cristi Popa


Exercise: what do these three pictures all have in common? They all are about going deeper underground. Most qualitative research agencies use the depth metaphor when showcasing a new tool, method etc. It goes something like this: “The important stuff is underneath. And if you get there you’ll find the real reasons/ the truth/ the insights/ the million dollar idea. By using this we can go deeper than anyone…where no man has gone before”.

The good news is that I have a submarine. So I can go deeper than anyone :)) – only kidding.

The bad news is that all these claims are based on the assumption of a clear, objective, irrefutable truth. That if we dig deep enough, give enough time etc. we can find out the real reasons for which John buys brand X. But what if there is no actual objective truth out there but rather a series of truths with equal intrinsic value, the only difference among them being their utility at some point or their ability to generate consensus among the relevant people? (Rorty)

What if the old onion metaphor would better reflect our endeavours in marketing research? Would then qualitative research agencies claim they can produce more tears when cutting the onion? Or that their onion is sweeter?

How Customers Think. Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market – Gerald Zaltman

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 10, 2009 by Cristi Popa

Some time back, Brian Baumal draw my attention towards this book by Gerald Zaltman. I never got to thank him so here it is: thank you Brian.

I remember that when I first read the book, it really got my hopes high. I was really enthusiastic for more than 200 pages. Then it just let me down.

A couple of weeks back I had the surprise of finding the same book, translated into Romanian (Cum gandesc consumatorii – Aspecte esentiale pentru studiile de piata, Polirom, 2007). I didn’t quite remembered why it let me down the first time I read it. So, I bought it, hoping that now, years later, after gathering more experience in research, I could properly understand it. So I read it again and of course remembered what disappointed me about this book.

Don’t get me wrong. The book makes for a good reading and it does get you thinking. Only for this reason and you should try it.

What bothers me most is that it just doesn’t keep its promise. The book starts taking a look at some of the newest (the book is published in 2003) advancements in neurology, psychology etc. and comes to a theory of what mind is, how thoughts are created, the role of emotion in this process etc. (nothing revolutionary here. More like a collection of already accepted facts about mind). Then it goes on saying that traditional qualitative research (mainly focus groups) does not stand a chance in uncovering the real motivations of the customers. So far, so good. But the whole time you’re reading you get this feeling that the author has a solution for all this. So you wait and wait and get your hopes high. You swallow the lack of structure, the vagueness of his examples and wait for his solution. And then the solution comes: metaphor elicitation – in other words an in depth interview in which the respondent is asked to bring with him a picture that best illustrates his feeling toward a brand, social problem etc.

In this point I thought: “but we already do this”. We also make collages, mind maps, diaries, ladders etc. And they’ve been around for years. I’m not saying that this is a bad method. But is this the promised salvation? The only way through which you will uncover the truth, the alpha and omega of qualitative research? Not really. It’s like in this episode of South Park when God comes to earth in a big, blinding light, with angel’s music on the background but he takes the shape of a drooling hypo-cat thing – the picture at the beginning (www.southparkstudios.com/episodes/103688 min. 19:00).
south park

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