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.
The photo is of Kelly Hicks, Social Worker of the Year. I post it because Kelly, based in Darlington, recently sponsored Nicky’s Talk for Health among service users in her community. The programme was so successful that Kelly and her colleagues are determined to install TfH as a permanent feature of their work in supporting recovery from mental illness.
Groundbreakers are all too few in these times when most of us spend at least part of our day mentally under the duvet, hoping that the troubles will leave us unscathed.
Both Nicky and Kelly refuse to be hushed in their dedication to pointing out that all of us face mental disturbance at some times in our lives – and few of us really work through these problems without a friend, confidante or helper.
I commend Talk for Health to you as a serious option for anyone who wants to get more out of life. See it here: http://www.positive-therapy.co.uk/
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!
In a series of videos on Facilitation, members of the talented group from 2cv who did a Pilot workshop with us talk about their experiences of that day! Let me take a moment to ‘frame’ their feedback for you.
If you’ve ever conducted qualitative work in front of clients or colleagues you’ll know that the feedback from observers often seeks answers to questions that you have not yet resolved in your own mind, or is faintly critical in the “you could have followed up more on…” vein. It’s very hard to walk away with a feeling that you did well, especially when you add to the voices of others the voice of your own internal critic!
One of our commitments in the Advanced Practitioner’s work is to put researchers and insight workers in touch with their good qualities – we call them ‘the things that work about you’ – so that they have access to these resources and can call on them when needed. It’s a bit like having an extra set of cards in your deck that you can call upon when you need them for a difficult play.
Most of us have, at best, a patchy picture of how we really come across to others – what signals we give off in the first few moments of contact – and thereafter. ‘The things that work about you’ is an exercise designed to help us fill in this picture – and to recognize that there are lots of good things that we bring, just out of our natural selves – without having to put on a performance, learn our topic guide by heart, or shape ourselves into a ‘blank slate’.
“The word is not the route to the psyche. In the beginning was not the word, but the act.”
Jacob Moreno is the founder of Psychodrama, the use of theatrical performance and staging to re-enact events and circumstances from life. Trained as a doctor in Vienna 1912-1917, he rejected Freudian theory while still at medical school. In his autobiography, he writes that he told Freud after a lecture that he gave: “I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their home, in their natural surroundings. You analyse their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyse them and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.”
Starting in 1921 he began experimenting with drama as a way of treating psychiatric patients in groups. He founded The Spontaneity Theatre which used improvisational drama as a means of treatment.
In the 1920’s he also developed a set of ideas which he termed Sociometry – a research method for looking at the social structure of groups which involved Sociograms illustrating these structures. Moreno moved to the USA in 1925 and held position at Columbia University. These ideas are very useful in group work.
- Humans are not just biologically determined (as Freud thought) but have a spiritual side and are influenced by their social context. “He did not believe in Freud’s model … Freud came from biology, Moreno was inspired by the great religions of this world. Freud was atheistic. Moreno was not.”
- He emphasises the importance of creativity and spontaneityin human life. Children have a lot of these things but they get squashed. Life produces constraints, society demands conformity, and therefore people get mired in habitual ways of responding where their spontaneity is stifled. He believed that therapeutic intervention should have the aim of enabling people to reconnect with their spontaneity and thus allow them to:
- be more integrated as people
- be able to respond more flexibly and creatively to new situations, and in the way they lead their lives
- Psychodrama as an intervention is designed to bring these aims about. He developed a range of techniques within Psychodrama such as role reversal and empty chair (before Fritz Perls).
In Zerka Moreno’s words (in an interview with Victor Yalom Ph.D. on psychotherapy.net)
“The easiest way to think about [Psychodrama] is ‘the mind in action’. Instead of talking about your concerns we say ‘Don’t tell me. Show me! Showing means to act it out … it helps you to express yourself in a new way .. a way that life doesn’t usually permit [in order to] make you more integrated.”
“We’re all broken and need to become more cohesive, more integrated from within. Through the catharsis of integration, we become balanced, within and without.”
You can find a download of this summary here: Psychology on a Page 11: Psychodrama
By far the best thing if you want to experience this style of work is to do one of our Action Techniques Days.
Alex’s Salmond’s proposed referendum question – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – is hopelessly biased because it is asking people to positively agree, not to choose from neutral options. It is well established in countless studies (Solomon Asch’s is the classic) that humans prefer to agree and say ‘Yes’ rather than disagree and say ‘No’. Mr Salmond’s question fits into this bias beautifully as it requires a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.
Saying ‘No’ can make us seem negative and confrontational and that is risky.
A neutral question would contain two choices: “Should Scotland remain within the UK?” and “Should Scotland be an independent country?” with a box against each. The voter would be invited to put a cross against one or the other. To preserve even greater neutrality, you could have a third box which offered ‘Neither of the above” for those who did not know or wished to abstain.
[Adapted with thanks to Robert Henderson, London]
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.
There is simply no place for the dominant respondent in a well facilitated group. It shouldn’t happen. But it does. The reason it happens is due to many things:
- In the first minutes of the group, people are nervous – some react by keeping quiet, others by ‘blurting’. It is quite usual that one group member is more outgoing and forward than others. If the moderator does not deal with this immediately, it may be interpreted by the talkative one – and the group itself – as tacit acceptance that this person will occupy first place in the pecking order and will speak first on every occasion. These things happen in seconds at the start of a group.
- Another reason is that forming procedures have not been handled right. Under pressure from the brief, it is far too common to barge straight into the topic. Very often the product, service or advertising makes it into the room before the people!
- Due to the lack of invitation and participation, a democratic level playing field has not been created. No emphasis has been put on the importance of including all views in the conversation and that the moderator will support and seek out anyone trapped in silence by nerves or shyness. Even if the moderator has done a two-minute spiel, talking about how important everyone is – he has not demonstrated that – and respondents will respond to what he does, not what he says.
- Another factor is the lack of listening – and lack of attention to listening in the group. If people think that their job is to speak, then those who are interested in power and status will be hard to stop – after all that seems to be the way Brownie Points are gained here. Not only that, people will not actively listen to others. They will simply wait for their turn to speak. This can be overcome by doing an introduction process in which everyone has to introduce someone else, after listening to them in a paired conversation for a few moments.
- Social loafing is common in focus groups. Make no mistake, your participants know they are being paid for their time. There is a professional transaction underlying their attendance. Some people like to do as little as possible for their money! Some moderators too!
- Production blocking is another regular feature and can be heightened by verbose types. Some quieter members will feel ‘blocked’ by the interruptions and rapidity of the responses from the eager, talkative members. This will drive them further into the background and they may need the moderator’s support in coming forward.
- Groups that are too topic focused and full of questions will lack affect (emotional depth). Such groups are hard to listen to for everyone, energy flags, responses become routine, process dominates and everyone wants to get to the end. In these circumstances a group can feel grateful to a dominant mouthpiece – at least he keeps the thing going! Make sure activities & pace are varied and that people get to be themselves in several different ways during the group.
- A group member might feel that they have genuine, unique, in-depth experience or knowledge of your topic. You have to make a judgment call on whether to allow this kind of ‘dominance’ – based as it is on larger capability. It will have effects on the feelings of the other members, but you can ameliorate these by thanking them for their listening and asking for their input immediately afterwards.
How to Set Up the Group
Introduce yourself NOT THE TOPIC, and let the group members know that you will ensure fairness, equality of opportunity and inclusion in the session. At this point people should precede products! If you are nervous about dominant respondents – or have an anxious client behind the mirror who worries about this – say something like: “I am keen to hear from all of you and will challenge you if you take up more than your share of space to an extent that prevents others. I understand that people get carried away and I will step in if that happens too much. I won’t allow bullying or overtalking or cutting off other people’s heads to make yourself look taller.”
Next you need a go round to give everyone an equal opening to speak – preferably on a subject that is important to them – like ‘what is the biggest thing in your life at the moment’ – rather than small talk about products or usage. This ensures that they arrive in the room – as themselves, not ‘users’ or ‘lapsed users’ or ‘potential users’.
Here is an example, following on from the remarks above:
“Having said that, I do want you to feel free to share your thoughts and feelings and for us all to have the chance. Let’s practice now, by introducing ourselves to the group by talking about something that’s very much on your mind today. It doesn’t have to be about the commercial topic, I’ll brief you on that in a moment. I will go first to give you an example of the kind of thing I mean.
Then the moderator introduces h/herself at the level that h/she wishes other people to share themselves. Model the kind of behaviour that you want in the group. You are the leader, others will follow you. Being a table rasa (blank observer) will frighten people and flatten your group. Also, make no mistake about it, you have a duty of care to these people.
Once people have brought themselves to the room via their introductions you should set the Primary Task: ‘we are here this evening to….’ And give the group some information about the activities and styles of work you anticipate. Also give them reassurance about time. ‘We will end at…’ They will be worrying about it even if you are not.
Now you’re ready to go. It is twenty minutes or so into the session. Rock on.
In our second look at the unconscious mind for insight workers we think about a human being, full of vulnerabilities – as well as potentials – and ask ourselves what role would make sense for an unconscious mind in such a creature?
Above all, you would want to preserve its life, its existence. This must be a primary process for without this life there can be no person. This simple fact shapes an unconscious mind that, whatever else it might come up with, must be conservative, attracted to reliable solutions, routes and routines. Thus the unconscious favours things it has ‘seen’ before, it favours the usual route to work, the brand of biscuits you’ve already tried, the people you know and the tried and tested idea. This explains how you can do familiar things like driving home without thinking.
It was under the influence of Jung (see here: Psychology on a Page 2: Jung) that our notion of the unconscious took a turn towards the mystical, ephemeral & unknowable, while at the same time the Behaviourists (see here: Psychology on a Page 4: Behaviourism) proposed an unconscious that was animalistic, instinctive and unknowable in a different way. I believe both of these ideas are inaccurate to a considerable degree (though contain ‘grains of truth’ that we will explore further) and have created a popular idea of the unconscious an unreachable, impenetrable place – when in reality it is in view at every moment.
My own view is that the unconscious is made up of symbols, all of which are represented in language (for language is after all the structure of thinking as well as of communication). Its building blocks are words and its structure is grammatical. As we shall see over the next posts, these words are not simply sounds, but each one is attached to an image, a set of associations – and the uncomfortable examples of these are repressed or hidden from the view of others and ourselves.
The results of the experiments described in the link below are unsurprising if you’re following these posts about how the unconscious mind operates.
The next time your great idea at work elicits silence or eye rolls, it might pay to think about this reaction. This research indicates that people don’t know what a creative idea looks like and that creativity, hailed as a positive change agent, actually makes people squirm. We found this out very early on in our co-creation work and from this generated an orientation approach that would help participants overcome their unconscious rejection of novelty. You must model and adapt such a process if you don’t want the ideas you are evaluating or generating to be automatically rejected!
Many of us have formed the impression that the unconscious is deep below the surface, invisible, unknowable, out-of-reach – a bit like the huge mass beneath the water in the picture.
This is simply untrue. It is present with us, intruding, dancing in and out of sight every moment of the day (and night!)
It is visible in body language, gestures, tone of voice – as we all know from trying to figure out what others mean/intend towards us. But it is also present in language, all of the time in virtually every sentence or phrase we speak.
The relationship between the conscious and unconscious is much more like that of two voices, a foreground voice (consciousness) and a background (unconscious). This is clearly illustrated in the moebius strip you will find here: Foreground and Background in communication
So how do we get in touch with it in an active way that engages the group?
You can do this early in a session like a meeting or focus group by speaking about the idea of foreground and background voices – where the background is both the little voice ‘speaking’ in our heads and the significance that we attach to ordinary statements without realising it – while the foreground is what actually gets said.
So let’s say you ask your group members to go around telling each other their names and one fact about themselves. Let’s imagine two responses you might get:
“Hello, my name’s Ian…and I love walking!”
“Hi, I’m Marie and I’m into fashion, big time!”
These are terribly short and apparently small pieces of information. However, they are much more potentially revealing of unconscious processes than at first meets the eye. This is because before choosing the topic of walking or fashion, Ian & Marie will have momentarily rehearsed a whole set of other things they might have said: e.g. ‘I love home-cooking’, or ‘I have more colds than anyone I know’ and so on. The key point is that they chose the things they did – out of all the things they could have said – in order to present something about themselves that they wanted others to be conscious of. To do this not only have they deleted some things they might say, but they are hoping to evoke certain associations and popular meanings by their choices. However, they may hardly be conscious of what they’re doing themselves, but the group will ‘hear’ both the words and some aspect of the unconscious intention.
So, to touch or tap the unconscious, the interesting follow up remark is not: “Tell us what you like about walking/fashion.” BUT: “of all the things you might have said to this group of people, what made you choose walking/fashion?”
Allow that it might not have been a deep reason, or even if it was it may be too early to reveal it in an introduction, but what you have done by asking this is to bring into the foreground the presence of the background – and show how it shapes and determines what we say in line with our motivations and wishes. It is also possible that Ian & Marie may have chosen this information in order to avoid other, less comfortable, less normal tit-bits. So, after checking in with Ian & Marie with “of all the things etc.” ask the next two group members, “I’d be really interested to hear one of the selections that came up in your mind that you chose not to say to the group.”
Be sure to normalize and praise every piece of information yielded and to enforce safety and acceptance in the group so that no-one is shamed or sneered at, and then go on to ask the next two members: “We’ve gone this far, it’d be interesting to ask you to share one of the things you would have been more reluctant to put out into the group. Are you willing to have a go at that?”
In this way, even in the first 10 minutes of our session we are working with background unconscious material and bringing it to light in an interesting and innocuous fashion. I guarantee that your group will be fascinated by this style of working, and that you have already created permission to delve into the unconscious intentions of the group at any time along the way – providing that you update the group’s permission and deal sensitively with the material.
This is the first in a series of videos that show more dynamic (active & expressive) techniques in action. On our Advanced Qualitative Course you can find out how & when and how to set up Tantrum and other Action Techniques in a group session.
Clearly, it is not easy to do this kind of thing in a crowded, over-furnished fake sitting room, such as you find in the typical viewing facility or recruiters home. But if you have chosen a setting for your group that will allow more expressive, free-form work, this is a wonderful exercise for unleashing desires…often revealing deep unmet needs.
The exercise in the film took place among a group of 70 participants and as you can see, everyone is having a go in their own way. It was this exercise that produced the unreasonable desire to “travel the whole journey on a magic carpet, or failing that, in a bed.” The project was British Airway’s 21st Century Flying innovation workshop, involving passengers and staff.
In 1997 this seemed impossible, but now you can take a comfortable limo to the airport with Virgin Upper Class, not quite a bed but the next best thing and nearly every major airline has fully flat beds in business class. Unthinkable at the time, but Tantrum helped it emerge into the world!
I am very proud of the difference that these innovations have made to countless journeys.
Here is Mark’s entire talk from the MRS Brand Research conference in June 2011. He introduces the key idea from his new book and any of you who have read (or meant to read!) Herd should grab a copy of this when it’s out! You will find a link to Mark’s site in the right hand area of this page.
For anyone not familiar with Mark’s work, he emphasises how much of what we do is influenced by the social aspect of our nature. We spend a lot of time observing, learning from and copying each other. When you think how different this is from the huge influence of psychotherapy – where the proposition is that you can be anyone you want to be – and, above all, be an individual, you’ll appreciate how welcome and controversial Mark’s perspective is. Being the kind of rigorous and scientific thinker that he is, Mark has assembled a formidable array of evidence for his point of view. Some of it is mentioned here. As are the mysterious Mountains of Kong!
What do people do when they put aside their professional roles? What do you and your mates do on the way home from a match or a party? What level of debate do you usually reach when watching the X Factor? What sells newspapers and magazines?
The answer to all of these is one word: gossip.
We love to chat with no holds barred about the things that piss us off, excite us, amuse us and just intrigue us. Much of this chat is superficially critical – a kind of offloading of judgments, assessments, opinions. But its real role is more profound, it generates a kind of creative commons where everyone’s input is welcome and irreverence rather than compliance rules the roost.
We have, of course in our wisdom, largely banished gossip from focus groups and qualitative research. It threatens to be too irreverent, critical and judgmental and we are worried that members of the public will pour cold water on anything given the chance. Just as you and I do!
Yet in gossip, what we really notice and pay attention to is revealed. Our envy, desire, status anxiety, drivers – both to fight and flee – are all apparent in five minutes gossip and you don’t have to ‘probe’. You only ever really have to probe if people are scared or indifferent – more often the latter than the former in market research.
So, how can you use the Power of Gossip to illuminate your work?
Here’s how. Set up a Gossip Game in the group. Here’s an outline of how I might do it.
“Let’s start with a well-known figure who polarizes opinion. Someone who has both fans and foes. Let’s take Bono of U2. Who is willing to represent him as fans, who as foes? Let’s have a couple of minutes each way. We’ll let the foes go first!”
“OK, we’re talking about salad dressings. I’d like to divide the group into two, four of you to discuss salad dressings as fans for a couple of minutes. The other four to listen and be ready to express your criticism of salad dressings in response to the praise of the fans. Don’t worry fans, you’ll get a chance to get your own back on the critics once they’ve done their bit.”
Here’s another method. Print off Mastheads from newspapers like the News of the World or the Sun and invite members of the group working as pairs to write headlines or stories about the product or service as they might appear in the Sun/NOW. They can search Google for images to go with their story. We only need the headline and the first couple of sentences of the story.
The point here is that this is emotional material, there is a freedom to express emotional positions without fear of looking bad or stupid.
The fact is that these may not be committed opinions, but they are social & cultural tropes – and so say a lot about the underlying opinions and judgments we hold. In a way, these games with gossip allow a group to reverse the process whereby they are invited to comment on an endorser or presenter associated with a brand. This kind of endorsement is obviously done to sprinkle stardust on a product, but allowing people to gossip about it will show you your product’s strengths and weaknesses quicker than anything.
We often want to maximize the appeal of the brand/person/service we’re working on. Giving people rational measurements like scales or discussions drives satisficing, not maximizing measures. Gossip is, by its very nature a maximizing activity. Everything gets exaggerated, good and bad – and in the exaggerations the true attachments or problems with the brand lie.
My tip today is: don’t probe or pressurize people to provide reasons or justifications. They’ll just make stuff up to satisfy you. This is known as ‘confabulation’. Instead, take the pressure off, open things up, don’t pursue! How would you like to be ‘probed’. Sounds like the dentist!
To get a better sense of the ways in which we deceive ourselves have a look here: http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/10-piercing-insights-into-human-nature.php
I am amazed by the amount of poor and unhelpful process in focus groups – and process that flies in the face of our increasing scientific knowledge of how choices are made. Much of it stems from the early ideas of psychodynamic psychologists like Freud and Jung that the psyche is a bit like an iceberg, with only a little showing on the surface while much is hidden beneath. From this the idea of probing surely emerges, what if we could poke about beneath the surface to find out what’s there?
This leaves a lot of researchers busily seeking tools or techniques to dig deeper. The favourite is the question: “Why?” Unfortunately this is usually both unhelpful and leads to false attributions. We know for sure that people don’t want to appear thoughtless or irrational in front of others, so they make up a reason that satisfies the questioner.
Look at the beautiful iceberg. You could say the white bit represents conscious mind and the larger part beneath the surface the unconscious. It’s true that more and more research shows that much of our decision-making happens automatically, within the unconscious, and so it is important to think about how to reach these more hidden areas. But if you think for a second about how Freud and Jung went about it, they created settings that were as pressure free as possible and just asked people to talk about what came to mind. They did not pressure or probe people, they realised that matters of importance would surface if people were free to raise them in the manner and pace that suited them!
So, my favourite ‘probe’:
“Could you please say some more about that?”
My department of psychology was, in 1967, like many others, in the grip of the influence of Behaviourism (Watson & Skinner) and Learning Theory (Hull). Today, the legacy of these years is that empiricism holds sway over any other kind of proof or theoretical heuristic in accounts of human activity.
Behaviourism has at its centre a beguiling and attractive idea: ‘what if we could estimate and calibrate the actions and reactions of human beings in response to events or stimuli by purely experimental means?’
This would remove the suspect influence of speculation about the mind, the psyche and the role of mental states, which are essentially impossible to observe without the report of the person experiencing them. We would be freed of the unscientific and subject only to the results of experiment.
Hundreds of conditioning and learning trials later, the behvaiourists had formulated the famous S>R model, shown in the diagram below:
The key idea here is that those responses which reward by the satisfaction of some drive or appetite would be strengthened, while those that did not would gradually fade or extinguish. In the early days this practice of conditioning behaviour using reward was known as Operant Conditioning.
In other words: positive chains of events that lead to reward are likely to be sought after while negative or unrewarded sequences are not. Kind of obvious but the behaviourists believed it could be expanded to calibrate all behaviour once you knew the Stimulus and Response.
You can immediately see the attractiveness of this idea to people who wish to sell a product or service. If we could link the product with a state of reward or reinforcement then surely this would increase sales? For many years nearly every commercial for just about anything used this S>R>R model to ‘train’ the customer to buy the product and expect the reward – even if that was only freedom from undesirable or negative experiences. One of my favourite funny reward commercials can be seen here:
Very quickly, right from the early days of commercial TV, advertisers were using these theories in a clever way. The most famous of these was perhaps the ‘Problem>Solution’ pattern of many commercials. Here the advertiser sets up a Stimulus that reflects discomfort or problems and solves it with a Response featuring his product or service, leading to a Reward for the viewer who, hopefully, can identify with the events in the commercial from h/her own experience.
Nowadays, the reward business has become something of a science of its own, based on those early behaviourist experiments. Loyalty cards, interest free loans (reduction of punishment), BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) and Frequent Flyer Miles are all examples of extensive Reward schemes – that can be modeled by their owners to maximize spending and loyalty from their customers.
I haven’t got room for it here – this is Psychology on a Page after all – but I will post an example of the S>R>R model being used in a research study soon.
Download a pdf of this summary here: Psychology on a Page 4: Behaviourism
You will find what I hope is a powerful critique of what I call ‘scientism’ and behaviourism here: Working in Depth Paper: website version
A opener on insight. Talking about 4 paths to insight that I have found fruitful. This is the central topic of the site and there will be more on this in the next series of videos!
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.
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.
Although I am the storyteller, the story is not mine alone. It is born from the thousands of people who have given me their time, their opinions and their feelings across 29 countries in nearly 40 years – on topics ranging from toothpaste to athlete’s foot, from tax dodging to thoughts of dying.
Without them, I could not have honed my craft, such as it is, and I would not have had the privilege of watching them uncover insight and the impact it had upon them.
From windy wet nights in Northern Cities, to sunny days in Singapore and Sydney I have gigged again and again. I have never missed a group or an interview, although I once was swept off my feet by the power of the wind in a snowstorm in Edinburgh, carrying an art-bag which acted as a sail to lift me into the air. Another time I left the results on the train and cowered for days wondering whether to come clean or hightail it to the badlands. One night in Bristol I listened to a woman tell a rapt group her recipe for roast Badger. I hope you don’t want it; I have forgotten everything except the unusual fact that it contained Flora margarine – the proper subject of the discussion.
This is my first blog and the very first post. Over the coming weeks I will do my best to share with you what I have learned in all those years and hope you will join me in talking about these matters, sharing your own tips or advice and creating a community among those of us who form the frontline of the insight business.
Every week I will post a new video, talking about some of the topics that matter most to me. I will also accompany these with pdfs of the text and slides so that you can use them for study or in projects or contact me about them if you want to. Nearly all of this is original material as far as I know.
Each week will follow a similar structure. I’ll tell you more about that soon. I hope you enjoy the Blog and look forward to hearing from you…