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FEATURE1 September 2011

Hear me out: Let’s seek out super-respondents


Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research. This month, John Griffiths of Spring Research argues that we should choose respondents for their abilities – not for what they represent.

What’s the big idea?
We all know that some respondents are more useful than others. So instead of trying to select them randomly to represent a population, why don’t we screen them for their ability to put their feelings into words, and use the best ones as much as we can?

That’s a bit radical. What’s prompted it?
I was doing some paired depth interviews in Milan recently, and I found myself faced with a respondent who combined emotional intelligence with being articulate, observant and interested in other people.

So you think we should deliberately seek out these super-respondents?
Yes. I know that in research we don’t like professional respondents who misrepresent themselves, or overheated respondents who have got wise to our methods. We like to believe that people walk in off the street and are as pure as the driven snow. So we have this convention of sorting them demographically, but because people are so different and we can only afford to reach a small number of them it makes sense to try to find people who understand their feelings and have the ability to articulate them as well. We have a fairly dodgy set of questions to test how creative people are (which I’ve always been suspicious of) but what we’ve never done is look at emotional intelligence as something that we could profile for.

Isn’t it the job of the researcher to be emotionally intelligent?
Absolutely. But from time to time I hear respondents and find myself thinking, I want to make a note of that person and invite them back in three weeks’ time because they put it so beautifully, they saved so much time. Every phrase nails the thing we’re trying to get at. I suspect that their ability to be quite so articulate is not because they happen to know so much about the area in question, but because they have that emotional intelligence.

Sounds like researchers getting a bit lazy to me.
I don’t regard it as lazy. Getting at things that people either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us is our stock in trade as researchers. We get respondents to tell us that stuff in spite of themselves through projective techniques, and in analysis we get out what is not obvious to the client sitting alongside us – we see stuff others don’t see. However, for certain types of research, if there are people out there who have the gift of being able to put feelings into words, why wouldn’t I want that?

Isn’t people’s inability to put feelings into words interesting in itself?
OK, so I might not pack my research facilities with these people, but we can at least make sure we watch out for them
and have maybe one or two in a group.

How would you put this idea into practice?
I’d make a mark by the names of really good respondents in my little black book and ask the recruiter, “Can you find them again?”

That sounds like it might not go down well in some sections of the industry. Not to mention with the regulators.
In my defence, my criterion for using this person would be to make sure as far as I can that they’re not overheated. If they’re from a panel, we can ask, “Has this person been used in the past three months?” We could use those criteria to make sure.

Failing that?
Another way to do it would be to put emotional intelligence questions in screening questionnaires, which would allow us to get some gauge as to whether these people are articulate or not.

Are there any good questions for doing that?
There must be – I’ll let you know when I find them. I’m sure there’s a way of getting people to talk about things at the screener stage that let us know how articulate they are. Maybe it’s not going through a questionnaire, maybe it’s asking someone to talk for a couple of minutes and asking the recruiter to exercise some creative judgement. I think we can do it.