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Let's Get Real! Getting Below the Surface with Qualitative Research, Part 1


"The role of qualitative market research is to explore the processes of people's motivators, desires, and needs. And, in order to do this, it has to deal with the private, intuitive, and symbolic world of the individuals, which is not readily accessible to consciousness."

— Joanna Chizanowski, author of Interview Groups and Individuals in Qualitative Market Research)

Qualitative market research provides both answers and insights to a wide variety of business questions. We rely on respondents to "get real" with us and to share their private, intuitive, and symbolic world. But often, in qualitative market research, we only tap into 10% of the human mind, the conscious mind, that includes readily recalled short-term memories.


For some research, that is all that is needed. However, much of the time, getting deep below the surface is more valuable and yields better insights. Getting real means getting below the surface to the feelings and perceptions underneath.

Undoubtedly, a good moderator and the right project plan can get you closer to those more profound insights. But to plan and manage projects in a way that allows us to uncover those deeper insights from our respondents, there are three things to consider:

  1. Think differently about respondents.

  2. Think about research differently.

  3. And think about how we, as people, think.

Think Differently About Respondents

When planning a project, it is common to spend time thinking about who we need to talk to and the questions we need to ask to get the right people into the research. We also think about demographics, and we think about product or service usage. We may think about attitudes or even a little about psychographics.

We often plan for research with an almost singular focus on our objectives and needs. We tend to fall into the trap of thinking about respondents as numbers and names on a page. As a result, we may be missing some critical opportunities to get better and deeper insights.


Respondents are people, too, and they have all the same challenges, frustrations, joys, and stresses that we do.


When respondents approach a new experience, they bring their ideas, beliefs, experiences, and feelings. Respondents have their own agendas and may not even be aware of them when research begins. Think about a hypothetical respondent and what they could bring to your research. This is what might be going through their brain:

  • "The traffic was terrible, and I better not get a ticket for where I parked."

  • Money, money, money.

  • "What if I give the wrong answer?"

  • "People are watching?"

  • Squirrel!

  • "What a pain. It took forever to get logged in, and I am not getting paid for that time."

  • Milk, eggs, bread, cereal, yogurt, lunch meat…

  • "Where's the bathroom?"

To think about respondents differently, we need to consider what they might be thinking about. We must consider what they might feel before even asking the first question. What is the emotional state of the respondent? And does it matter? Distracted, angry, sad, frustrated, rushed, or annoyed are only a few of the emotional states respondents could be in when they come to research. What respondents are feeling can impact what they say, how they say it, and how much effort they put into their participation. They cannot easily or quickly turn their emotions on or off, so the best approach is to give them a moment to talk about it during the introductions before getting into the subject matter.

To think about respondents differently, we also need to recognize that respondents come to research with memory patterns they may not even be aware of.


Think about Research Differently

All humans have memory patterns that develop over time through routine and regular actions. Our brains build patterns as we repeatedly see, hear, feel, smell, sense, or taste something. When we experience it, or something like it, again, the brain activates the existing memory trace or patterned thinking, and we go on autopilot.


For example, how often have you arrived at a destination you drive to regularly just to wonder how you got there? We are on high alert the first few times we drive someplace new. We look for signs and landmarks, which lane to be in, and where to turn. But travel that same path over and over again, and soon, you get to your destination and have little or no recognition of how you got there. You have a memory created by your repetitive actions and the resulting thoughts planted in your memory.


These patterns can happen as a result of market research as well. Respondents who often participate in market research have a memory pattern that we have not considered. When we start thinking about our respondents differently, we also need to consider their memories of that research.


Another aspect to consider is that, for respondents, research is the great unknown. When researchers go into a project, we have a lot of information. We know the brand or product, and the research objectives. We know what we are trying to accomplish, what the questions and discussion will be, and what we will do with the results. We hold all the information. Respondents don't know anything about the research in which they will participate. Consider what it feels like to go into a situation you don't know anything about. Consider what information you could share with respondents to increase their comfort and lessen their anxiety.


Think About Thinking Differently

In research, we often ask respondents to remember something, such as an experience, a reaction, or a feeling. Unfortunately, memories are not stored in an elaborate filing system. Instead, memories are stored in bits and pieces in various places all over the brain. When we ask respondents to think back, reflect, or draw on past experiences, we ask them to dig into the subconscious mind, gather all the various parts of that specific memory, and piece them together into a single response. Remembering is a process of reconstructing what may have happened based on the details the brain chooses to store and can recall. And remembering doesn't happen instantaneously. It can take time to remember memories with any detail.


However, the good news is that memories are stored with retrieval cues. Recall is triggered by a retrieval cue, an environmental stimulus that prompts the brain to retrieve the memory. Evidence shows that the better the retrieval cue, the higher the probability of recalling the memory. Getting to the most profound memories may require the right cues.


A better retrieval cue than "tell me about your experience" might be using color. Colors are proven to help us remember things and can help us recall our memories. Additionally, colors and songs anchor memories. And as they say, pictures are worth a thousand words. Another cue that taps into memories and experiences stored in the subconscious is pictures.


Memory recall also appears to depend on the individual's emotional state, at least to some extent. Individuals tend to retrieve information more easily when it has the same emotional content as their current emotional state and when the emotional state at the time of retrieval is similar to the emotional state when the memory was first stored. Setting the mood or taking the time to have them recall their mood at the time of the memory can make a difference in the quality of the memory recalled.


Finally, warm-up exercises prepare the brain for work. Three UCLA psychologists completed a study using warm-up for one group asked to solve a problem and no warm-up for another group asked to solve the same problem. Subjects who had experienced the warm-up solved the problem significantly faster than the control group without the warm-up. We need to give the brain time to warm up to give respondents the best opportunity to answer questions.


Now that we’re all thinking correctly about thinking, in Part 2 of this series, we move on to specific suggestions to incorporate into your research process to help you get beyond the 10% of the conscious mind to the richness stored in the 90% of the subconscious mind. Stay tuned!


See Part 2 of this series coming soon! Can’t wait for Part 2?


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