Many of us like to think we can read people – and that an advantage of face to face work is that you can see the colour of their eyes – or at least their body language. In my view this is not a simple matter. There are advantages to being present with people but they, like most other ‘truths’, are spoiled by generalisations, distortions and deletions.
If you download the pdf below from the New Scientist, you’ll see that it’s not as easy to read body language as we like to think. Much of our certainty about others is driven by the need to reduce our uncertainty about ourselves - and so we look for closure & simple interpretations and drive these with generalisations.
No, you must be prepared to spend time with your informants in a way that allows them to unfold & emerge before you, only then can you calibrate the weight and significance of their words and gestures – and this matters whether you are F2F or online.
Too much rush will increase your own doubt and uncertainty and lead you to jump to conclusions. It is wholly uncertain that these will predict behaviour.
This fourth video starts to tackle the conditions needed for creating depth in contact with people. It is in my view an illusion that you create any reliable real contact by venturing straight in to what may be twenty or more questions to strangers about their lives! I think that Relationships are the Source of Results and that at least one third of our time should be spent creating and building 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.
Over the next year its my intention to publish 100 tips that I have found useful in the practice of qualitative research, co-creation and depth work of all types. I think we are lacking a forum for sharing the intimate tools of our trade – including all the frustrations, disappointments and difficulties we meet along the way. I hope that others from our professional community might join in the conversation – posting if they will not only reactions to my suggestions but also good ideas of their own.
As early as 1988, I promised I would get off the road, give up the nights spent in unfamiliar homes, viewing rooms, hotels and in the company of strangers. Yet in spite of efforts to change direction, modify my practice and do it differently, I have come back to trying to understand what makes people tick (and hence what makes me the person I am!) over and over again. This is the central journey of my life, and I have spent my career pursuing it. Apart from the mysteries surrounding my own childhood, if I look back for the source of this fascination I can recall a childhood passion for detective stories and trying to figure out who was the culprit, the motive and the plot. Sherlock Holmes was a hero of my youth! There are other more intimate sources to this story and, perhaps, if I find a curious audience I will recount them in more detail.
It is, I believe, important for practitioners to know why they are in the room with others, engaged on journeys of discovery, for if the motive is only money it will get tougher and tougher to endure the double-day working (daytime + evening), the endless travel and hotels, the tension of being ‘viewed’ by clients, critics and peers and the effort to make an intervention that goes beyond reportage.
This last is a key point: if we are merely to report what people said, you can see that the days of truly interactive, face-to-face qualitative are numbered, for why should we not just collect people’s opinions gathered in a ‘room’ online? I am a big fan of online qual work – especially done in the community style – but nothing can match the face-to-face encounter for the skills of building empathy and permission to dive beneath the superficial to explore what lies beneath.
I will publish the first of the 100 tips next week.