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Why we could all benefit from being a bit more playful

Qualitative research is most useful when it gets beyond what people think to what they truly feel, and uncovers the motivations and desires which guide our actions.


As qualitative researchers, we were amongst the first to introduce ‘gamification’ into our work. And we have long used play as a way to gain deeper understanding of the instinctive ways consumers make decisions. That way we improve research outputs, and avoid being misled by the ways consumers may post-rationalise complex decisions.

Understanding consumer motivations

There are a number of levels that we aim to reach in order truly to understand consumers’ motivations, and how best to meet their needs.

Projective and enabling techniques

The techniques that we use to get beyond the top levels of awareness add value to the process in two ways. They enhance the research experience for participants, and they bring greater richness and ‘truthfulness’ to the data for us.

Their use helps us to vary the pace, and to maintain interest throughout a session.

At their simplest level they are one of the tools we can use to bring out the views of quieter respondents, who may lack the confidence to participate fully in the discussion, but have a valuable contribution to make.

But they go beyond this. “Projective techniques provide verbal or visual stimuli which, through their indirection and concealed intent, encourage respondents to reveal their unconscious feelings and attitudes without being aware that they are doing so” (Dichter, 1960).

Encouraging honesty from consumers

Projective and enablign techniques help respondents to express themselves:

  • They encourage truthfulness. By disassociating themselves from the point they are making, and projecting their thoughts and behaviours onto others, respondents have permission to say the unsayable
  • They challenge participants to introspect in new ways eg by defending an opposing point of view
  • And they enable us to elicit unconscious feelings and motivations which may not otherwise be articulated

Allowing time to include projective approaches suited to your objectives can really add value to a project.

More hints and tips…

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A future post will outline examples of techniques that have been particularly beneficial, and how and when to use them


What is the optimum length of a focus group?


I’ve been at this lark since the last century, and it seems to me that the length of time we expect participants to commit to a focus group, and to make a useful contribution, has gradually been creeping up over the years.

How long is a piece of string?

When I started out in research, a group discussion (as we referred to them before we bowed to the inevitable and accepted the US term focus groups) usually lasted 1½ hours. Nowadays I would only ever recommend 1½  hours if I have a client with a tight budget and I am trying to keep respondent incentive costs as low as possible without deterring potential participants.

Two hours seems to have become the standard (or even the minimum), and to be honest, by the time the stragglers have arrived (those who couldn’t find the building, or got stuck in rush hour traffic) several minutes have probably been lost, so we’re already down to about 1 hr 50 if we’re lucky.

Many of my clients are based in mainland Europe. It is unusual for them to consider groups of a shorter duration than 2.5 hours, and they often go for as long as 3 hours. This can work if there is plenty of stimulus to show, and interesting things for respondents to do. But towards the end of a 3 hour group that may have started at 7pm, the energy level in the room can start to drop, and responses simply become less useful – so it is important to include plenty of changes of pace and activity.

How should you calculate the time you need?

When deciding how long a group should run, it is important to take a number of issues into consideration

Sample – Assuming respondents are adults, without disabilities, up to 3 hours is probably feasible (though not always advisable, for the reasons mentioned above) 

Number of respondents – Groups are generally amongst 6-8 respondents, so 1½ to 2 hours gives everyone an opportunity to share their point of view. ‘Mini-groups’ eg 4-6 respondents can be completed in a slightly shorter time without limiting individuals’ opportunity to have their say

Subject matter – It is possible to run a group which is both lengthy and lively. Young men, can be so engrossed in talking about computer games that they are still going strong after 3 hours. But there is a limit to the length of time that most of us can sustain our concentration in a discussion of credit card statement layouts, or supermarket price labelling – so it is important to keep it interesting. Projective techniques can help with this, and are a topic for another blog which is coming soon. And if you do have a longer group – avoid leaving the most important part of the discussion to the end if at all possible

Research objectives – By this I don’t simply mean the amount of ‘stuff’ to be covered (though this certainly influences the amount of time needed), I also mean the type of information needed. The more exploratory the research, the more time is needed to uncover relevant and new insights sensitively and with the richness that supports clients to make the right decisions

Stimulus – A key element is the ‘stimulus’ to which participants are exposed. This can range from rough concepts, through draft marketing communications, to finished products, and can keep a group interested and involved. However, people need to be given time to evaluate what they are shown, and this needs to be allowed for in the group.

Budget – There is a sudden hike in cost when group length goes from 2 hours to 2½ hours. The simple reason for this is that it is not possible to run two longer groups in the same evening, so one of them has to be held during the day. This increases venue costs substantially, and also requires a higher respondent incentive.

The real worth of qualitative research lies in its depth of understanding, and richness of insight. And in the end, this can perhaps be better achieved not by increasing the length of the group, but by limiting or prioritising the amount covered. That way we ensure that we provide a depth of understanding that will support our clients in their business decisions.