OPINION12 May 2014

How to handle the great qual quandary

Early-stage qualitative work is an integral part of creative development, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Incite’s Dan Cooper explains what they are and how to avoid them.


But with debate continuing to rage over the ability of quantitative pre-testing to meet the demands posed by the modern-day comms landscape, the research industry must be careful not to neglect ongoing issues that plague early-stage qualitative enquiry.

“They just can’t accept the fact that people don’t get their idea”

If you’re a researcher and you’ve spent any time working on creative development work, then chances are at some point you’ll have heard a disgruntled qually – still reeling from bad feedback from an even more disgruntled creative – muttering something similar into a late night takeaway.

In fairness, creative development work can present tricky terrain for researchers to navigate, particularly at the more embryonic stages of the creative process. A heady mix of rough and ready stimulus, infuriatingly over-rational consumers and conflicting ad agency and client objectives (‘give me creative direction’ vs ‘give me the answer’) is enough to give even the most seasoned of researchers the jitters, and justifiably so.

Despite the challenges that exist though, the harsh reality is that both clients and ad agencies are all too frequently exposed to unfit-for-purpose qual. While it would be wrong to deny the existence of the odd overly-precious creative director, if you find yourself pinning the blame on him / her for an unsatisfactory project, then perhaps the focus of your post mortem should shift a little closer to home.

Old habits die hard

Written concepts, packaging, prototypes; our bread and butter tends to involve focusing our respondents on the material in front of them. We offer up material that they can read, see, touch and feel, and then we dive headlong into evaluating it.

When it comes to early stage creative development work however, the reverse is frequently true – more often than not, it’s the things that aren’t immediately visible that are of most importance to the guys behind the mirror. Dave from Sutton Coldfield may well have a problem with the use of imagery in a poster ad, but that’s of zero interest to an agency trying to gauge the emotional resonance of the creative idea which sits beneath it.

While it’s not rocket science, anecdotal evidence gleaned from ad agency partners suggests that an inability to make the basic distinction between idea and execution remains one of qualitative research’s most notable shortcomings.

It is not only a shortcoming, but a source of frustration, and not just because it fails to recognise key objectives, but because it also encourages respondents to whip out the proverbial red pen. There are few things respondents enjoy more than telling us where ‘the ad people’ are going wrong, and – as anyone who’s ever winced through a ‘what they should do, right, is put someone famous in it’ will attest – they don’t tend to be shy about flexing their own creative muscles.

No-one enjoys having their work ripped apart, but when overt criticism is left to run wild by the moderator – particularly when fixed on rough executions that would never get within a mile of a real-life consumer – is it any wonder that ad agencies end up fighting the temptation to burst through the glass, Hulk-like, to voice their fury?

“An inability to make the basic distinction between idea and execution remains one of qualitative research’s most notable shortcomings”

Rubbish in, rubbish out

Of course, the old adage that ‘you get out what you put in’ is particularly pertinent here. When it comes to stimulus preparation, researchers have a vital role to play, which extends far beyond simply making sure that the material is ‘consumer friendly’. It’s about providing a second pair of eyes, and ensuring that the stimulus does justice to the creative territories it seeks to represent.

But could more be done to make multi-format executions feel like part of a cohesive whole? In the pursuit of creative betterment, have any executions drifted away from the underlying creative idea? If testing multiple routes / territories, are we dealing with a consistent level of ‘polish’ across the board? Researchers need to be willing to confront these issues head on – a quick sense check prior to receiving the boards on the morning of the groups simply isn’t good enough.

So what of the most important research input of all -participants? Much is spoken about ‘getting the right people in the room’, but while it’s entirely appropriate to seek out those who complement the right consumer behaviour with the requisite attitudinal traits (confidence, ability to articulate thoughts etc.), this tends to manifest as little more than a few attitudinal statements tacked onto the end of a screener.

Where possible, we like to go further, hosting recruitment evenings prior to fieldwork. Doing this allows us to meet potential respondents, brief them, chat with them over a beer and see how they fare when tasked with working on creative tasks with others.

Fast forward a week, and not only do we know exactly who’s going to be walking through the door, we also know that they’re ready, willing and able to provide the level of insight we need.

Get stuck in!

Whether it’s a lack of confidence or a simple inclination, it still feels like qual could be adding a whole lot more to the creative development process.

It’s certainly not a walk in the park, and there’s always the risk of external factors – clients warring with their agencies and, yes, overly precious creative types – scuppering our best efforts. But experience tells us that by immersing ourselves in the development process and adopting a position which is less passive ‘do-er’ and more active partner, the potential’s there for us to add a whole lot more.

Apart from anything else, it makes that 11pm dinner taste an awful lot better.

Dan Cooper is an associate at Incite.


10 years ago

Very interesting Dan. Eagle-eyed observations, crystal clear.

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10 years ago

Love the idea of recruitment evenings! But, just like the ideal of flying in moderators from around the world after an international project to brainstorm, I can't see when time, or budget, will permit

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