The use of pictures in qualitative research

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.


2 Responses to “The use of pictures in qualitative research”

  1. Over at I’ve been tracking an interesting discussion on the use of images in market research among members (myself included) of the Next Generation Market Research Group started by Ricardo Lopez, President of Hispanic Research, Inc. We’ve confronted the use of images in research since 1953 finding that whenever you use images you tend to cement images and emotions in place rather than promote discussion beyond those bounds and any advertising agency would agree; and so we switched to “written” creative and stimulative materials finding that they better enabled the respondent’s mind to wonder/wander, the way reading a good book forces you to use your imagination and imagine a scene based on individual perceptions and frames of reference to discuss rather than have it presented as a done deal long ago. And with better business building results.

    But what is the risk of using images to present ideas? Both Washington Mutual Bank (once the biggest bank west of the Rockies) and Kahn’s/Hillshire Farms presented images to respondents to get a bead on how to present their brands to consumers. Both WAMU and Kahn’s/Hillshire Farms showed people pictures of farmers dressed in blue jeans and flannel shirts, and scientists dressed in stached shirts and lab coats. There were a range of other images. Obviously, being based in Seattle with lots of rain, forest and hippies, WAMU was perceived to be the “friendly” bank while arch rivals Bank of America and Wells Fargo were perceived to be “those evil starched shirt corporate guys not to be trusted.” Similarly, Kahn’s/Hillshire Farms products were percieved to be made by honest “farmers” while Swift-Eckrich products were percieved “made and processed” by corporate food scientists in stainless steel by men wearing starched white lab coats.” So which image is more appealing? And is this really insight? I think not.

    Using this data, though accurate, did not move either business ahead. For friendly WAMU and Kahn’s/Hillshire Farms; neither grew their customer base, sustain growth nor were they any more effective at retaining customers. That usually happens when you show people what they want to see. The wisdom of crowds it is not. WAMU got bought out by evil Chase due to its inability to weather a financial crisis and Kahns/Hillshire Farm was sold to the evil white coat guys – erasing all the research time, money and advertising spent on work that went down the drain. What a waste of career time.

    Anyway, why does the practice of using images in research persist? And why do academics promote such? Because pictures in research promote what people in the medical community (doctors) call “SEARCH SATISFACTION.” A condition where the care or answer givers simply stop looking for better answers when they find one that “works.” So should images really be a part of Next Generation Market Research? Well?

  2. […] but what about the client experience?  A great post over at the Yellow Submarine blog on “The use of pictures in qualitative research” got me thinking again about how important the experience of the client is in qualitative research […]

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