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DON’T ask

Qual research briefs always have loads of questions. From the issue to the objectives to the topics to cover.

The problem for researchers is you can’t just go and ask people. It’s so annoying. Basically, David Ogilvy was right: “The problem with market research is people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

So how do you ask without asking? Let’s go in reverse order, from the outside in:

1. “They don’t do what they say”

As in ‘…say what they do or are going to do”.It’s not so much that people lie. They often simply can’t remember.

Or it’s unconscious. Ask someone how they put on mascara and they often have to act it out to remind themselves.

So what you have to do is observe. That means ethnography. Whether it’s in-store, at home, online or through a pre-task. And if you’re doing that, get the client involved in it too through a Closeness programme.

2. “They don’t say what they think”

That’s the problem with focus groups, particularly with six or more people in a room or on Zoom. Especially on Zoom.

It’s OK if it’s a creative session. But for any other kind of project there are going to be barriers to openness. The main one is people are on show. There’s a spotlight on them whenever they talk. Maybe that’s why it’s called a focus group. Never liked that term.

The answer is to go smaller. 1’s, 2’s and 3’s for us, 3’s for choice. Zoom even has some advantages here, a kind of intimacy that comes from everyone being tucked up in their own home. I find people listen more too, the stories get longer, there’s more empathy.

3. “People don’t think how they feel”

This is the big one. Not just since we all went System 1 / System 2, it always has been. Affects, emotions, feelings, they all start in the unconscious. By the time they emerge blinking into the harsh light of consciousness, some rationalising is bound to have gone on.

So whether you’re exploring the deeper needs driving people’s behaviour or the deeper associations people make with a brand or the deeper responses people have to a piece of communication, you have to accept that asking them straight won’t work. You need a trick up your sleeve.

For me, that’s some kind of projection. Either get people to imagine they’re someone else, so they can talk about their ‘person’ without feeling self-conscious. Or take them off to some kind of brand world, so they can bring to life their feelings about a brand without having to articulate them.

So that’s it. Watch, listen, learn. Three really is the magic number in research.

In the end, what matters most is to find out what people do and why they do it, behaviour and motivation. Your job as a researcher is to dig through the saying and thinking in between until you get to the truth.

And if it were as simple as asking them “and how do you feel about that?”, we’d all be out of a job.


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