Taking the Fluff Out of Qualitative Research

The need for “greater insight” and for researchers to make stronger recommendations to marketing departments is encouraging corporations to seek more in-depth consumer insight through qualitative research. The annual Asia Research staff survey shows that the “walls” between qualitative and quantitative are breaking down. These days, fewer agencyside researchers work exclusively in quantitative and are taking on multiple roles (i.e. getting more involved in qualitative research), and this trend should be encouraged.

While some will argue that quantitative researchers cannot be true “quallies” (however you wish to interpret this), “quanties” can bring their own analytical skills and a “sense of discipline” to qualitative research.

A common complaint among clients is that qualitative research can often produce voluminous reports festooned with words that users of the research cannot understand (e.g. words such as “festoon” to decorate in a flowery sense). In an attempt to impress clients, qualitative researchers can bamboozle (mystify) clients with complex qualitative analytical models, and obfuscate (confuse) with lengthy and rambling conclusions and recommendations.

shutterstock_287062904Qualitative research needs to be delivered to clients in the same way as the other methods in the research professional’s tool kit – “what does it mean” and “how do we apply it to get the best return on our marketing and business development strategies”. While intellectual stimulation gained from an insightful piece of qualitative research is welcome, the paying client still wants to be informed in concise reports with clear, unambiguous recommendations.

BDRC Asia has studied many of the “new approaches” in qualitative research and the various consumer psychology analytical frameworks. From this we have developed our own approach and model encapsulated in our Tri-Sight® qualitative technique. We recognised that consumer psychology is highly complex, particularly in an age when people have many more choices and consume far more media than ever before. This is further complicated by more complex social structures and cultural influences. BDRC’s goal was to demystify quite complex consumer psychology, develop a down-to-earth analytical framework, and deliver this in unambiguous reports with clear recommendations.

One of the best-known consumer psychology models is the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Although it was conceptualised as far back as 1943, it remains popular in sociology research and management training today. This describes five levels of human needs: (1) physiological (food, water, and warmth); (2) safety (security and shelter); (3) social needs; (4) recognition; and (5) fulfilment.

For most of the “consuming class”, the basic physiological and safety-related needs can be taken for granted, which leaves three other levels in Maslow’s model – “Belonging”, “Self-Esteem”, and “Self-Actualisation”. But these three levels are too broad and generic, and require breaking down further to be applied effectively in modern consumer markets.

BDRC Asia expands this to ten core needs that are subsets of the top three layers of Maslow’s model. Some examples include the need of consumers to be “taken seriously”, which is a powerful need in today’s society, where people want recognition (e.g. for hard work or status earned). It can work in both ways: people are motivated by status symbols (e.g. expensive brands, platinum credit cards, and exclusive clubs) but are offended when they are ignored (e.g. not having their phone calls returned, being kept waiting, or not having their complaint taken seriously). These issues are very much refining customer service propositions. For example, a message you hear a lot while being kept on hold is “your call is important to us”, which is an attempt to inform the customer that they are being taken seriously.

Although we now live in a more virtual world (cloud and Web), we still hang on to the reassurances of our physical world. We still enjoy our favourite hangouts, such as our preferred Starbucks outlet, or our favourite bar, and even our preferred spot in these outlets. Notice how stressed we get when our favourite hangout place closes for renovation, or worse still, closes down completely. While “hot-desking” is increasingly adopted by corporations, staff love to define their own territories in offices, and relocating people within an office creates all sorts of micro-stresses. Hot-desking might not be as well received by staff as companies would like to think. Hence physical locality is a very important need for consumers and helps the local retailer whose customers still want the assurance of “permanence”.

BDRC Asia has applied our Tri-Sight® qualitative model to a range of products and categories, and very often the strongest desire of consumers is to have control. This manifests itself in the products and services we adopt to bring us this sense of control. Technology helps us to manage our day (calendars and to-do lists), ensure we do not miss out on opportunities (our near-permanent connection with email and the Internet), bank online to check our cash position, and buy insurance to control risk and medicines to help control ailments. The loss of our mobile phone creates panic as we move from being in control to being out of control (e.g. losing our contacts and possibly our money).

While we seek order in our lives, we also seek to stimulate our mundane lifestyles through a measure of excitement. This ranges from small doses among the more risk-averse (the occasional pleasant surprise), to moderate doses for the more adventurous, to high doses for the more extreme risk-takers. This manifests itself in dangerous yet pleasurable activities such as extreme sports, fast cars, travelling off the beaten track, and gambling (stock market or casinos).

shutterstock_255352090What makes BDRC Asia’s Tri-Sight® qualitative model more user-friendly than others is that it relates modern-day needs to products and services that are all around us and those that we can relate to.

BDRC uses complex elicitation techniques (e.g. through the use of imagery), but the client does not usually want the detail – they do not care what the picture is, what its meaning is, or what its implications are. Hence, we deliver what clients really need by focusing on what to do about their brand, product, or service based on the qualitative research evidence.

In attempting to take the fluff out of qualitative research, we need to create structure out of chaos. Good moderation and elicitation techniques produce a lot of good verbatim, but it is the application of these analytical frameworks that allow us to categorise them, interpret them, and communicate the findings in meaningful ways in bite-sized pieces. We help to structure the findings that allow analysts and industry experts in our teams to deliver the most insightful strategic recommendations to clients.

This article was first published in the Q3 2015 edition of the Asia Research Magazine.