Click on the Thumbnail to see the film.
Doubts about qualitative research in its traditional forms continue to gather pace. Here, in a cutely executed piece Coca Cola take a swipe at traditional processes – among them qualitative research. If you look more closely though, it is a particular form of qual that they criticise, namely “qualitative testing of scripts, an increasingly outmoded and irrelevant tool.”
Some colleagues have reacted nervously to this, perhaps wondering if it’s another brick in the growing wall of doubt about the usefulness and validity of our practices.
However, if you carry on, a few seconds later, you’ll hear enthusiastic avocation of a qualitative technique that can be used to ‘expand the creative potential’ in idea development. This turns out to be collaborative workshops with consumers, a qualitative experience if ever there was one, and is based in Coke’s idea that ‘consumers produce more brand stories than we (Coca Cola) do, so let’s move towards genuine consumer collaboration.’
This is co-creation if ever I heard it, and whether you carry it out online or via workshops is a choice. There are distinct advantages and drawbacks to both routes. In my recent paper, I define qualitative research as the study of subjective experience, it is not – and never has been in my view – a method for establishing likes and dislikes or eliciting opinions about material that consumers have no stake in. This kind of script testing work arose in the first place as big organisations back in the 80′s and 90′s established their own marketing departments and needed a handy tool to hold their ad agencies in check and provide fuel and ammunition for discussing agency recommendations with the consumer’s voice included. As I tell in the paper, this quickly became an industry standard practice and for many years many quallies lived off it, myself included. But we have found out since that it is of questionable validity and many of us have changed our methods.
We started co-creating in 1991 to resolve just this methodological issue. Glad to see Coca Cola catching up at last!
For what its worth, my own view of this film is that using a visualiser to tell a story is fine, but this story is far too processy, full of detail and jargon such that at the end the table of ‘tools’ being recommended looks overloaded and extremely crowded. I suspect its like that in real life as each of the techniques and their proponents struggle for supremacy.
This week I want to offer you a copy of my latest paper, published in the International Journal of Market Research, Volume 54, Issue 3, this month. Called Working in Depth it provides what I hope is a comprehensive description of the value of face to face work – and the principles underpinning it – derived as they are in my practice from the European schools of psychology, rather than the American: in particular from Gestalt and Existentialism.
My approach is essentially about enabling the whole person to be present in the session: if you like brief, snappy expressions, I would some it up as: “People before Products”.
I believe that many of the over-simplistic and plain wrong findings we get from formulaic ‘Question & Answer’ sessions arise from the fact that we only have 20% of each person in the room. We already know how tricky it is for everyone to get in touch with and express their real motives (see the work of Kahneman & Tversky), but there is a real opportunity to accomplish that if we set up a safe environment for in-depth work where people can join together to explore less obvious and less noble reasons for their choices and behaviour. Without a safe place where people have time to look inward, such in-depth work is impossible.
Here, without more ado is the paper! Please email me and let me know what you think – good or bad!
Can you keep the warm-up down to 5 minutes?
How many times did I hear that request? It is one of the most common misunderstandings of group process to assume that you can cut the warm-up to the briefest of introductions and then proceed with your topic guide as if your participants are really there!
If you were sitting in a group of strangers in an unfamiliar setting about to embark upon an encounter that you hadn’t seen the agenda for, how much of yourself would you have readily available to put on show?
I would be pretty scared, at the very least nervous, and cautious about coming forward. If I were a participant, quickly I would appraise the moderator – the person in charge – and then my fellow members, looking for a friendly or attractive face, decide a strategy (“I’ll take my turn but not go first/make a joke whenever I can/talk about my kids/try to figure out what they really want/look at my knees/feet/coffee/play with my mobile/fiddle with my collar.”)
A whole bunch of displacement activities and mild evasions. Keeping most of themselves hidden. Avoiding awkward silences but not breaking any boundaries or norms.
Into this shy, nervous, occasionally impulsive gathering you must start to ask the questions you have agreed with your client – who may be watching you, while talking to friends and colleagues (about you?) behind the glass – with a glass of wine in hand.
Because it is so unregulated, so lacking in encouragement and invitation to come forward in that first few minutes, it is quite usual that one group member is more outgoing and forward than the others and gets the approval of the moderator for livening things up in these early moments. 30 minutes later this forward person has become a ‘dominant respondent’ and won’t shut up. Dominant respondents are only 10% driven by dispositional factors: the other 90% is the result of poor group process.
If you do the first twenty minutes differently you will never be bothered by dominant respondents again – or even if the odd unquenchable tongue-wagger shows up – you’ll know exactly what to do. See the Top Tip 10 Next Week.
Whatever you think of Tony Blair, in terms of technique the work we did for him in 2005 was a unique piece of insight work. So much so in fact that this work with its innovations in understanding the use of personality in political markets has made its way into the American Annals of Political Science and – even in the UK where Blair has been demonised – the paper was nominated for Best Paper at the MRS Conference, 2006.
People have short memories and have forgotten that 54% of us supported military action in Iraq in 2003. There is a very British tradition of gung-ho militarism that tends to fade as the real life-and-death consequences of war play out on our screens and papers. We are still not averse to the odd bit of Johnny Foreigner bashing provided we can convince ourselves that right is on our side.
My purpose in making this paper available here is not to condone or castigate Blair and his administration. It is to make the insight work that helped him recover his standing in the run-up to the 2005 election available to students of qualitative technique – particularly Two-Chair work which, under Nicky’s direction – was fundamental to this project. As far as I know it has never been used on a national issue, before or since.
Download the Paper here: Reconnecting the Prime Minister, 2005
The core idea of Gestalt psychology is that a whole or ‘gestalt’ is perceptually primary rather than a secondary quality that emerges from its parts. This ‘whole’ seems to represent the innate way in which we experience things. Related to our Course and to our approach to psychology generally is the idea that phenomena or objects are perceived as ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. Hence the classic illustration above:
Which do you see first, the vase or the faces?
This is a similar principle to that of Foreground & Background that we use to illuminate the overt and covert parts of everyday consciousness in our practice and Courses. The important thing for us is that Background and Foreground do not exist independently of each other. They are in constant relationship and together form what the Gestaltists called a ‘Weltanschauung’ or world-view. This ‘Weltanschauung’ forms the blueprint for our actions. As Carl Rogers neatly puts it: “Behaviour is basically the goal-directed attempt of the organism to satisfy its needs as experienced, in the field as perceived.”
You can see immediately that any inquiry hoping to lead to an understanding or prediction of our actions – if it fails to account for the existence of Foreground and Background – and their interplay – is likely to be inaccurate and unreliable, simply because it fails to apprehend the reality of the way we experience the world.
So, creating an inquiry process that allows the emergence of Foreground & Background is crucial. Next, we need to check the prominence of aspects of these two parts – we need to ask which is critical in driving behaviour in any given circumsatnces? This notion of prominence bears relation to the Behavioural Economists’ idea of Choice Architecture: the similarity is the idea of a way in which perceptions are arranged that leads to preferences.
The ‘Gestalt’ is not an easy thing to explain: everyone experiences the beauty of a summer evening, or the wonder of winter snow. But these things are not easy to report or take notes on. Somehow, ‘white flakes falling’ doesn’t do it justice – even though it is accurate in a sense.
The rush to generalisation is common across many fields of inquiry: it simplifies the world and gives an impression that you know the facts. An illustration is a famous joke made in earlier days by psychoanalysts about their clients: it goes: “If they are early, they’re anxious; if on time, they’re obsessional; and if they’re late, they’re hostile.”
It is easy to sneer at these kinds of statements and claim not to be party to them, but most of our attempts to explain or understand run the risk of making too simplistic generalisations about things that are related in a complex manner. Starting with the whole rather than the parts often leads to a more realistic solution.
Here is a pdf: Psychology on a Page: Gestalt
Have you got a couple of seconds? Have a look at the pictures above. They are all designed to capture or hook your attention.
I hope one of those grabbed you. By the way, it does not matter if they turned you on or off – what I’m trying to do is stimulate your fast archaic loop for processing that bypasses the cortex (which you must have returned to if you’re still reading!) and engages the autonomic nervous system – the one that controls heart-rate, pulse, feelings…more instinctive, automatic processes if you like.
The point here is that by engaging this by-pass we put your emotions more in control of your responses. Your feelings are now plugged directly into the stimulus – and will be influential in generating a response. That’s why sex sells. As does the power of ‘free’ (see Dan Ariely’s, Predictably Irrational). Nowadays there are more and more books that speak about the huge role of the unconscious in driving decisions, choices and behaviour. Here are links to just two of them:
In an era of shorter attention spans, where unconscious process are often in the driving seat, the hook becomes an all-important mechanism. The hook is the means by which you attract attention it is also the gateway to sustaining attention. In the images above the third ‘hook’ – the falling man picture – is designed to create an element of surprise and wonder – what will happen to the falling man? It also creates a dilemma and the mind does not like unresolved dilemmas, so is tempted to follow them through to resolution – and does this through active fantasy, “I wonder what happened to that guy?”
So in a world that is increasingly full of information, capturing attention is critical. It is inevitable that as the amount of information grows what will decline is the amount of attention given to any particular piece – so you need to know what captures people’s attention and why.
The hook is the most powerful device used in television programming and advertising to gain and sustain the viewer’s attention. In the hands of a master like Jimmy McGovern (who writes ‘gritty’, realistic British drama), there is a clear formula – which in condensed form also applies to television advertising and online content. This formula is not expressed anywhere as a theorem, but in reviewing the most successful TV dramas and commercials of the last twenty years I have noticed that the ‘hook’ must be employed within five minutes of starting the programme – within seconds if it is a commercial.
There are several types of hook and they vary between the sensory hooks that seize our attention because they are outside of normal experience, and the underlying deeper motive or part of us that the lure attempts to hook. We will deal with three stimulus variants first:
1. The shock – this is usually some quite spectacular or unexpected event, like the world falling asleep in FastForward, the battle on the beaches in the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan or a killing in a crime show. The engaging nature of the shock results from the adrenalin rush or excitement that it causes. In commercials, shocks are less serious, more bizarre or unreal, like the city-wide roller-coaster in the Barclaycard Contactless commercial or the flash mobs in airports or stations in the T-mobile campaign. The shock both hooks you and stimulates your adrenalin which in turn focuses your attention.
2. The puzzle. It is usual for the shock to give rise to the puzzle – and for the puzzle to be the means by which attention is sustained. Puzzles leave the watcher wondering – what, why, who, how – questions that demand resolution. It is the success of these elements in holding our attention – the shock leading into the puzzle, that make crime shows the world’s most popular entertainment.
Two interesting forms of puzzle that have contemporary value are
- The technological puzzle – a conundrum that can only be resolved using scientific and technological procedures of the highest order – many of us are endlessly tinkering with these as we try to improve our skills in surfing, streaming, downloading etc. This type of puzzle is the basis of the CSI television series.
- The paradox – here the essential hook lies in the contradiction between truth and falsity – an obvious delight for the participant, providing the paradox is ultimately resolved. What is the answer? Which are legitimate clues, which red-herrings?
3. The Competition. Who will win? Who will be best? How would I do facing these tests? Could I beat these people? Nowadays, the reality TV shows – like X Factor – in which people start out as beginners and are rapidly transformed into ‘stars’ draw the highest audiences of any TV show in the land. As you will notice as you read below, the competition plays straight into both regressive (Play) and progressive (Power) motives.
Now coming onto the deeper motivations, there are four main areas where things hook us:
1. Seduction – something is so attractive and desirable that you are magnetised and held in its sway. This can be a person, a product or an idea. It’s easiest when its straightforward sexual attraction, but you will notice that many other things are either associated with sex or presented in such style that they seem sensual. Lighting and camerawork can make a car look sleek, cool and sexy.
2. Power – the most progressive hooking mechanism is the suggestion that you will be in some way increased should you buy the product or service. It will enhance your image, your speed, your appearance, your prestige or status. Since so much of our society is preoccupied with status and standing, having more power – even if only by association – is no mean thing.
3. Comfort – more regressive in approach, these hooks usually rely upon memory or familiarity, prior knowledge or interest. Sentimentality is often a key ingredient. We all have our favourites, things we are drawn to automatically – because we are fans, because we have invested in earlier episodes or versions, because there is a lot of hype/media interest, because we know that all our friends are also using or watching the same things. One of the wonderful things about the comfort hook is that it involves minimum effort!
4. Play – again, appealing to the regressive, more childlike part of us are the appeals to play. Often these involve a large component of active fantasy as we can see in commercials for video games or new programmes/movies.
We all inhabit a world where people are increasingly setting out to hook or engage our attention. The consequence of this fight for our minds is that we have engineered increasingly sophisticated defences. The most direct of these is Studied Inattention. Its partner is rebuttal.
Contemporary opinion suggests that marketing and advertising has less power because of the diversification of channels and platforms. My own view is that this is often an excuse for work that has a low or inaccurate appreciation of hooks and/or motivations.
Transactional Analysis (TA):
Throughout my early career I became something of a specialist in advertising development research: the kind of project where you take a set of scripts or storyboards out into groups to see if they grab people or not.
One of the essential components of this kind of work is to have a language for talking about the tone of voice or style of behavior depicted in the prospective commercial and whether it works to engage and motivate or not. Transactional Analysis intrigued me because it had tackled just that problem – the issue of finding an easy to understand language to communicate with patients about the workings of their psyches – and doing so in a way that these ‘inner voices’ were simply described.
The founder of TA, Eric Berne, called these voices the Ego States. This language, with its famous Parent, Adult, Child model was particularly appropriate for advertising because so often commercials attempt to skirt the rational defences of the mind and engage our childlike delights or pleasures.
The basic TA model is here: the idea is that there are three core components to consciousness, three voices if you like – a Parent, an Adult and a Child.
Each one has a particular tone and affect, summarized here:
The fun thing is that you can experience each of these voices for yourself from moment to moment. Your parent voice can be either controlling or nurturing, your adult presents facts and observations while your child hums that jingle or pop tune you can’t get out of your head! The beauty of the model is that it can be checked out experientially by any of us at any time. We can feel its reality: our inner voices do speak to us in different styles. In advertising research we often used references to these voices to analyse the impact – or lack of it – of advertising.
There is a brilliant example of a TA enhanced commercial here: the R White’s Secret Lemonade Drinker:
Here an adult who creeps downstairs in an exaggerated pantomime ‘tippy-toes’ walk to help himself to some Lemonade from the fridge. He is totally gripped by his Child ego state. His expression is of delight. Just as he drinks his lemonade, his wife appears behind him, completely in her Adult, and we wonder for a few seconds whether she will scold him (Critical Parent) or empathise (Nurturing Parent).
Because the advertiser wants to encourage our empathy and participation, a smile dawns on her face and she accepts her man’s bizarre behavior. All of this takes place over a jingle, a mock rock track sung in a very Free Child voice.
Yes folks, I’m gonna be speaking about some of the things I rant about here at an MRS conference soon. I’ve uploaded a pdf brochure for the conference – and if you’re able to come, I’d love to see you there.
Great speakers, fascinating topic!
You can get a pdf about the conference here:
Now we focus in on the heart of breakthrough psychology, the idea of abnorming – born out of my eventual realisation that no theory, no matter how cool, could explain all that we are.
This is the key reason why I’ve bothered to learn about so many of the great ideas in psychology – and to keep them in my back pocket. You never know when they’ll come in handy!
Let me know your thoughts!
My Tip this week: get your groups arguing. Read on and you’ll see why.
If you have a set of alternatives to evaluate its likely there are two main question you’ll want to answer: which is strongest and why?
There are any number of ways in which one thing may be stronger than others, but we know that liking is a key attribute of preferences that lead to purchase. In many years of market testing Unilever have established this attribute’s importance. They have also shown that ‘likelihood to purchase’ is strongly correlated with buying in the real world – so you want to ask your respondents: ‘which do you like best?’ and ‘which would prompt you to buy?’ Of course you’ll do this in the words that work best for you but my advice is to keep it simple!
Next we come to the question of ‘why?’ If yours is a qualitative project, almost certainly some degree of diagnostics will be expected of you. Here the science and the state of our knowledge suggests that our respondents are much less likely to know why they chose one thing over another than they think!
Of the ten seminal papers on this site, 1,2 6 & 7 are relevant to this issue of awareness of our own ‘reasons’.
So, what should we do? The answer to this kind of methodological question is often to be found by questioning your own daily practices. How do you and your family reach decisions about prefrences in daily life? In my family it is almost always by discussion and argument, in which one side (even if only one side of your own mind!) presents its arguments against the other and they battle it out. We try to stop short of outright fights!
In my experience modern focus groups might do a bit of discussing – if there’s time, – but almost never any argument. This is for two main reasons:
1. There is a fear of argument and dissent in groups – that this activity would make the respondents uncomfortable – and more importantly, might make the moderator and the clients uncomfortable too.
2. Rhetoric, or the skill of argument is unfashionable in this empirical age. We are not taught how to argue in a civilised manner – and thus argument often appears uncivilised!
This is where Breakthrough Psychology comes in handy. One of the key techniques of abnorming (the founding principle of Breakthrough psychology), is called the Flip. To do it you just flip what is normally done on its head and do the opposite. So, if most groups don’t argue, we must find a way to use argument – and everyday life is actually packed full of it – in our groups or interviews.
How do you do that? My experience suggests that making it into a game is the best way. To do this you divide your group up into 3 teams, two trios and a pair (for a standard 8 member group – vary numbers if you have different size groups). Each trio chooses a different route from those you are evaluating and has five minutes to come up with a ‘pitch’ to the other group members on why this route works best for them. The pitch must be no longer than a couple of minutes. Then, once the first trio has done its pitch, the second trio goes on, pitching another preferred route using their arguments.
The point of this is that in order to ‘pitch’ something, people have to grapple with the original, turn it into their own words, extract what is of value from it and also what it means to them. It is these two elements meaning and value that will give you the best diagnostics. They also have to practice condensation, another crucial ingredient of evaluation work – forcing us to summarise virtues.
The remaining pair + the moderator form an audience and create a score out of ten for each pitch. That score can be linked to some attribute if you wish, like true to the brand, strength of appeal, whatever your client is trying to understand about the value of the routes. Or they can just comment on their experience of the pitches without scoring if you prefer. I recommend getting the scores!
Whether you end up focusing on one preferred route or more in your report/analysis is up to you and shaped by your brief.
Try this out in your next focus groups or post a comment with any questions you have and I will try to answer them.
My tip is:- think clearly about whether you are being asked to evaluate or discover. And then structure your sample and method accordingly. They are journeys through different landscapes and need different tools and tactics. Just as you wouldn’t use or pack the same bag for a business trip as a holiday – so you need to pack your methodology differently for these two journeys!
I’m sure many of us are grateful and excited to do the evaluative stuff, but it is not in my view the natural strength of focus group methods.
Why do I say that? It’s to do with the nature of the discourse. In any evaluative project the discourse must be sourced in comparisons. Is this better than that? Is this the right direction for this brand or service? Is the logo clear? Is the message on target? Is this more relevant/up-to-date?
Once you create a comparative frame, it’s hard to be sure in your groups who is comparing what with what. Everyone in your group or sample brings a different frame of reference to the topic and quite often the stimuli have at least 5 or 6 parts, so they are complex and symbols & language are often mixed together.
Most importantly, the people in your group are more likely to be influenced by you, the moderator and the other group members than the stimulus material. It is almost always of more importance to each person what the other people think of h/her than to be accurate about the stimulus or their opinions.
Additionally, if the group has dived straight into examining the stimuli and there has been no practice of working with difference or disagreement, the group will regress to the safest norm – and so choose a safe option. Not because it’s better for the brand – but it is better for the group. They feel variations on a sense of unity, comfort in agreement, sensibleness and that they have got their job done.
In my experience, the question lingering in the debrief of such exercises is often:
“How many people actually said that?” If this question is bubbling about, I think its nearly always a sign that quantitative methods might have worked better to resolve the ‘which is best?’ issue.
That doesn’t mean that evaluative work is a waste of time, far from it. It is essential to hear customers or potential customers working with the vocabulary and personality of the brand, and this can reassure clients and/or stimulate creative. I think though, that to get the best out of this type of group/depth, you need to include the possibility of disagreement and argument since this is the very framework you are using to assess. If it only comes at the analysis stage you will be left with having to guess! I will give you a tip on how to work with difference and argument next week.
It’s not very often that your work gets used directly at a National Level. Here is one rare example. In 2004/5 we were asked to help Tony Blair, who due to the Iraq & his relationship with Bush had become disconnected from the British people – and most particularly female voters.
Using two-chair work in focus groups we were able to uncover the nature and source of women’s hostility and what might turn it around. Several weeks later, as part of the reconnection strategy TB uses a speech in Gateshead, seven weeks before the 2005 election to initiate a shift from his Professional/Public level of relationship to the Personal, likening the bad feeling towards him to a domestic squabble. We had advised him on the Relationship Triangle and its power in a debrief a few days earlier.
Whether it worked or not is up to you to decide. But his party’s support did increase by as much as 8% in the next six weeks running up to the election. Nearly all of that increase was with female voters.
If you click on the thumbnail you’ll be invited to download the pdf. Be my guest! This is to accompany the video called Facilitation.
I cannot over-emphasise the importance of learning to consider the domain of the social in facilitation. All social encounters have a set of rules, many of them hidden! Each one of us is good at some relationship levels, less good at others. In our job you are certain to meet people who have a propensity to each of the four levels.
Most common are those who choose to fix at the Professional level. You need to create permission and ‘games’ that allow/encourage them to step out to the public or personal levels.
Least common are those who go straight for the Private Level: they will occur in your encounters as ‘boundary busters’ and can be a great asset to a group or a project – but can also be very unsettling, even scary for the people around them!
Fabulous examples of boundary busting are to be found among stand-up comedians, who oscillate between the personal & private domains: which of us would feel safe standing alongside them onstage as they do their act?
It was in the area of structure that we favoured the idea of co-creation and developed the principles and techniques for abnorming. I had long believed that people’s potential was determined more by the circumstances they found themselves in and their pathway towards those circumstances than by their innate creativity or intelligence. I don’t believe that either of these two capabilities, much favoured by experts & elites are fixed qualities that have been doled out in rations between us! There are just too many examples of people accomplishing exceptional things (often in exceptional circumstances) for any other explanation to make sense. Not just exceptional good things either: if you read the coverage about the policeman who ‘truncheoned’ Ian Tomlinson to the ground, you’ll find his creative interpretation of Mr Tomlinson’s ‘aggressive behaviour’ quite imaginative and his mixing of ‘towards’ with ‘away from’ equally inventive. The policeman said under oath that Tomlinson was approaching the police line aggressively, while the video shows him walking away.
I suspect too, that in the Courts of Justice there is an epidemic of everyday lying that illustrates huge resources of creativity and confabulation available to the ordinary man when the chips are down!
I will return to the damning ideas of special talents, elites and ‘gifted’ people again as I discuss our experiences of Breakthrough Zones in future posts.
We must also take up the topic of everyday lying and distortion so well demonstrated by this video and the policeman’s story. What if lying – or at least confabulation (making up explanations/rationalisations on the spur of the moment) – is the standard procedure in ordinary focus groups and interviews? Surely that means that for many clients getting the ‘reportage’ of what was said in the session is the booby prize!
To return to our theme: how could we create the sort of circumstances in which accomplishing the exceptional became the norm?
From years of brainstorming and facilitating new ideas sessions, I had discovered the faults of brainstorming methods: I found myself in agreement with the synopsis given by Keith Sawyer in his excellent, ‘Group Genius’. Here Keith outlines the three reasons why brainstorming groups are less creative than impromptu groups (called Nominal Groups in the classic Osborn study):
- Social Inhibition
- Production Blocking
- Social Loafing
I will return to each of these – and what you can do about them in the Tips section. In summary, you may be starting to gather that I think that many of the conventional ideas about human beings and what happens to them when they get together are simply wrong. To test the validity of any widely promoted idea (like intelligence, talent, expertise) you need to consider who benefits most from these ideas, allow for the experimenter effect and include the value of the ideas in maintaining the status quo. Each of these three ideas appear to limit the potential for the rest of us when compared to the best of us. We can thank reality TV for beginning the process of dismantling these shibboleths.
Have a lovely weekend!