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Innovating Qualitative Research to Uncover Deeper Insights

Qualitative market research emerged in the 1940s. Since then, marketing research has evolved to take advantage of new technology and societal norms. In the past two decades alone, we have seen the rise of online survey research and remote methodologies for qualitative research. Even artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining ground in market research. Can virtual reality be far behind?

But with all of this change, most traditional market research approaches continue to use an ask-and-tell model. In other words, we ask the questions, and the respondents tell us their answers. While this approach can be highly effective in the hands of a skilled moderator, this model also has its limitations.

The ask-and-tell approach is very good at tapping into System 1 thinking but not as good at tapping into System 2 thinking. Quick refresher:

  • System 1 thinking is fast. It includes impressions, intuitions, and judgments based on our daily routines. It is the here and now. When faced with a decision, it is our nature to go with System 1 thought, and it takes more effort to tap into system 2. Traditional ask-and-tell approaches often rely heavily on System 1.

  • System 2 thinking takes more time and is less automatic. It occurs when we are faced with a new situation (or if we make a very conscious effort to dig deep into our thinking). Through innovation, we can design research to encourage more System 2 thinking. Thus, increasing the potential for deeper insights.

Without the effort of innovation, our brains will choose the easiest path (System 1) rather than working harder (System 2).

And this is exactly why we innovate. We innovate to get beyond traditional ask-and-tell responses and beyond System 1 thinking, and we innovate to get to the deeper and richer insights available with System 2 thinking.

Innovate Big or Innovate Small?

Innovation includes both the creation of completely new methodologies as well as seeking to improve or augment existing methodologies. Big innovation is creating something brand new. Small innovation adds to a traditional qualitative research approach to enhance and improve it. Both have a place in market research and can deliver deeper, richer insights. However, small innovations are probably more flexible and accessible to qualitative researchers.

There are three ways to innovate small:

1. How can I add to what we are already doing?

One innovation that is easy to add is the use of art. Art can be used to add to existing or more traditional approaches. For example, if you seek to understand the experience of depression through the eyes of the patient, ask them to draw, sketch or paint what depression feels like for them. Or, to better understand the experience of living with gout, you could include an artist in the research. As the respondent shares their experience, the artist draws an image for the respondent to react to. The results from these additions could provide a deeper understanding of the patient's language to describe their experience. They may uncover hidden emotions that impact the patient's perspective and identify unmet needs that lie below the surface. An additional benefit of this simple addition to the interview is that it can provide direction and guidance to the agency in developing creative concepts.

2. How can I modify my approach to provide more?

In a traditional approach to consumer messaging, we might conduct interviews, expose the messaging to the patient, and ask them to react. However, the insights might be much deeper if we first immerse the patient in their experience. For example, using an online forum to allow patients time to reflect and live in their experience before reacting to specific messages. We did this with individuals who are living with migraines. The online form allowed the migraine sufferer to react to messages and tactics at a time when they might be looking for migraine solutions. The result was richer, deeper insight, and some unexpected learning along the way.

3. Can I update my approach in some way? Consider a pre-assignment to give you more information from the respondent. Here, it all comes down to what you ask of the respondent in the assignment. The opportunities here are limitless. Using idea starters, writing a blog or an advice column, and so many more. For HCPs, it is very helpful to include a patient chart review prior to the interview. This allows the HCP to respond and react in the context of an actual patient, with a clinical mindset – which can provide richer insights than a straightforward ask and tell approach.

When to Innovate?

Not everything needs innovation. Don't innovate just to innovate. Innovate with purpose. How do you know when you can benefit from innovation and when it is not needed?

Many situations can benefit from thinking about an innovative approach. For example, are you revisiting a past research question for new insights, if so, it might be time to think about innovation. Looking at a situation through multiple lenses, think about how innovation, small or big, may help. Use an innovative approach when you want your insights to make a lasting impression.

And within each project, ask yourself:

• What types of information or insights do I need?

• Can I get it with the traditional approach?

• Is there a way to improve my approach for richer and deeper insights?

• Does it make sense?

Innovation does not have to stop with your approach to qualitative research; it can also apply to your deliverables. Non-traditional deliverables may better engage your audience, make the insights "sticky" and more memorable, and helps to socialize the learnings beyond the market research team to the broader organization. Innovation of all kinds requires creativity and imagination. But as Thomas Edison once said, "There's a way to do it better — find it."

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