OPINION9 January 2015

Innovate and Die


Jigsaw Research’s Peter Totman argues there’s an innovation problem with qualitative research that needs to be addressed.


“Anyone who uses the word workshop outside the context of light engineering is a tw**”.

It is unusual to quote comedian Alexei Sayle in any context, never mind in the research one. Strangely gratifying though. Satisfying to have an excuse to use the word   “tw**” in this sacred MRS space. Those asterisks make it feel even more subversive.

The quote was actually Alexei launching an attack on the pretension and imbecility of modern ‘business speak’. I wonder what he’d think of the some of the hyperbolic language used in a typical qualitative research proposal (if his curiosity were ever to lead him in our direction).

Recasting the innovation problem

I think we have an innovation problem in qualitative research. Not too little innovation but too much – or more accurately, too much of the wrong kind, too little of the right kind. Much of what passes for methodological innovation is simply cosmetic – the repackaging of older approaches to sex-up proposals.

We have all done it. The temptation is understandable.  A ‘new’ methodology, especially with an exciting sounding name, is proposal porn. Clients, like researchers, are inspired by the new. No matter how hard procurement professionals try, they cannot ‘scientise’ the tender process – emotion still plays a role. So it is rational to ensure our proposals appeal to the emotion. They also need to stand out from the seven others. 

This is where we get ‘creative’. It is too easy to engage in hyperbole – the new technique offered up (anyone for ‘social norm encounter sessions’?) is just a theatrical tweak of an existing approach.

Before the Conflict group became a cliché

Remember when ‘Conflict groups’ were radical and dangerous? In many ways they seem like the archetypal qualitative innovation technique.  A bit of a cliché now perhaps but they were a real and valuable new tool in the qualitative toolbox.  It is a technique that has theoretical origins and a value that can be articulated.  

But conflict groups were overused, over-egged and over-hyped in the name of creating ‘theatre’.  They sound more dramatic than a group discussion.  But conflict requires passion or at least belief. Not every brand is Marmite and calling a respondent a ‘brand champion’ will not change that. 

Innovation comes from inspiration

But actually there is inspiration aplenty to drive genuine innovation. There is a constant stream of new thinking for us to tap into – whether it be in behavioural sciences, social psychology or neuro-science.

Other inspiration comes from what is ‘new’ to us, or has fallen out of fashion. We can revisit classical source psychology – humanistic, psychodynamic or (even) behaviourist. Those schooled in psychology can get to grips with the sociological or anthropological canon.

The inspiration may lead to new methodological innovation or, perhaps of more lasting value, it may simply add another level to the analysis.  

Baby and bathwater

The danger is of pushing innovation too far and unthinkingly departing from central qualitative principles. In our attempts to find that ‘look at me’ methodology, to create spectacle, we may forget good research is relational. It is about listening and being present, it is about empathy and exploring people’s subjective worlds.

For example, a lot of innovation focuses on subverting the traditional respondent role. This may mean the moderator adopting a more challenging tone or a task within the group to see how they ‘react’ in some new scenario. This is all fine and can create new perspectives. But we should approach changing these traditional roles very carefully indeed.

The devil’s advocate can evoke a different kind of response – defensiveness can be another window into the soul – but also a wall. We learn so much more when we hear how respondents experienced the scenario – from their subjective viewpoint. Their words will provide another level and sometimes a challenge to our ‘observations’.  

Of course the innovative spirit is a source of strength in qualitative research. New methodologies stir the spirit and raise the adrenalin – but they are most useful if they come from somewhere. Whether it be emerging thinking, an overarching research philosophy or a reinterpretation of a traditional academic source. The proposal is more persuasive if the benefits of the innovation are not treated as self-evident but the case is made for them; citing the origins as well as the benefits. I like to call this ‘rooted innovation’ – but I am worried Alexei might disapprove.

Peter Totman is head of qualitative research at Jigsaw Research

1 Comment

9 years ago

Enjoyed this article. Let's be proud of qualitative, and not hide behind nonsensical theatrical names. Classic qualitative methods include: 1) participation in the setting, 2) direct observation, (3) in-depth interviews to gather data, and (4) analysis of documents and materials (content and cultural analysis). Qualitative methods not only fit the need for creativity and innovation, they are in fact the very tools that the most innovative companies use in their consumer-centric research programs. Only qualitative research can identify the human dimensions of consumer value – be they emotional, experiential or cultural – that can be translated into innovation (‘breakthrough’ or ‘adaptive’) in products and services.

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