Creative Qualitative Research: “You Want My Respondents to Do WHAT?”

creative consumer research

I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday. It’s one of those memorable moments you’ll likely never forget. My client looked at me, astonished and said, “You want to do what with my respondents?!” The incredulous tone in her voice was enough to make me question myself, but only for a brief moment.

I’ll admit, I say some really off the wall things. But I was onto something, and as my career has grown, so has my confidence for recommending creative customer research methods which on the surface seem crazy.

Projective techniques have always been a staple in qualitative research, but it was usually reserved for imagery exercises or having respondents imagine themselves in future or safe scenarios. For example:

Imagine you go to purchase ingredients for your traditional Friday pasta dinner. You stand at the store shelves and they don’t have your favorite brand. You need to pick something up but clearly must get something different. What are your criteria for something new? What do you look for? What do you ultimately buy?

I’m not trying to deride these types of techniques – they are still instrumental in qualitative research, but we have come a long way since then.

How to Be More Creative: Work Your Way Backwards From Crazy

Let me clear one thing up before we continue – creative doesn’t mean crazy. With creative methods, you want to start with big, crazy thoughts and scale back. It’s so much easier than going the other way.

If you’ve read my two previous articles, you know that being creative doesn’t mean you have to try something unheard of or completely new (very rarely, if ever, are we inventing stuff out of thin air).  Creative research methods can mean taking something used previously and redesigning it with a twist. This means much of what we do in qualitative is rooted in a tried and true method.

Sometimes it’s just giving a boost to an imaginary research exercise using visual metaphorsFind and upload 3 images of animals that best represent the product. You take a standard imagery exercise and direct them to think differently. You know you’ve hit a home run when a new lengthening mascara you’re testing reminds women of Giraffes – have you see how long and beautiful their eyelashes are?! I’m being serious. The client loved it – That analogy is so much more powerful than uploaded images of movie stars or beautiful sunsets.

Instead of having respondents create mood boards using images of people showing various emotions, give them a superhero persona and have them take images of their everyday nemeses and watch as they tell a story of their world through a different vantage point.

One of my favorite icebreaker/warm-up exercises is to have participants break into teams. Each team is given 5-10 crayons and they pull a central theme from a hat (Old West, Hipster Coffee House, 1980s Horror Movie, etc.). They need to then rename the common crayon colors to fit their theme (if you’re read my first piece, “Can you pass me the ennui colored crayon?” you now know where the title comes from). It’s a great way to kick off a group regardless of what you’re about to jump into. It sets the tone and immediately starts the group in a relaxed and fun manner.

Sometimes being creative means asking things that are not directly related to the topic. We always talk about adjacencies and what we can learn from that – sometimes being creative means simply working outside the paradigm of the research question.

For example, if you want to understand a consumer’s unmet need, ask them to figure out how they’d ‘patch their life.’ Have them imagine they can purchase a ‘prescription patch’ that when worn fix certain aspects of their life. Family dinner is a chore? The patch will turn you into a gourmet chef and cut dinner prep in half! Commuting takes too long? Slap that patch on and suddenly you know the best routes to take in real time to cut your commute time in half. Office coffee sucks? Your patch suddenly makes it taste like that pour over you had in Turkey last year.

Give them the freedom to invent several patches and watch their imagination take wing – but have confidence that what they come with means there is a need for something better and we can now ladder down to understand the true need.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Research Partner

If you are working with someone and they want to do something that you are unsure of, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • What they are recommending is grounded in a solid foundation based on your research objective. Just like creative ideas don’t materialize out of thin air, neither do participant exercises. You would be surprised by the time, thought and energy that goes into designing the right questions to get the best and deepest insights from your consumers.
  • Give it a try at least once. Time is money. I get it. But you could be losing out on garnering some amazing insights just because you don’t want to try something once. If you’re doing a handful of focus groups and are still on the fence about an activity, try it with at least one group before you decide to pull the plug.
  • Ask that ever important ‘why.’ To do what’s best for your research, don’t be afraid to ask the reasons for conducting a particular activity. It might look odd on paper, but your moderator/qual partner can explain it and help you understand their point of view. Hop on the phone and ask them. Let them know your hesitation and why you’re hesitant. You are the expert with your brand/product/service and if there is a red flag, they need to be aware. Things can be tweaked at any point; that’s the great thing about qualitative research – flexibility is the name of the game!
  • Try it yourself! I get it, you’re busy. We all are. However, if you’re unsure, grab a few colleagues and ask them to try the activity/exercise for yourself. Heck, you can even try it at home with friends and family. I often run things by my wife to see how easy or difficult the activity is to do and if it makes sense.
  • Trust your qual partner. We’ve come full circle. In my first article I mentioned this, and I want to reiterate it here. Take a leap of faith. I know that’s easier said than done, but you decided to partner with them for a reason. Let them guide you along the creative path.

Smash The Box

The next time your research partner suggests something that makes you stop and scratch your head, pause, take a breath and know that they are recommending it because it’s the best activity/questions/exercise to answer your research question.

If the insights were easy to come by, you wouldn’t need a partner to help you. Asking the same questions will get you the same answers. Don’t just think outside the box, smash it!

Want to learn more about creativity in qualitative research? If you want to get some ideas to make your next research project of this world, join me for my on demand webinar, The Chemistry Between Creativity and Qualitative Research. You can register to watch here.

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