OPINION30 October 2023

Instituting silliness: Play unlocks the whole human

Opinion Trends

Using play techniques can trigger more detailed insights in qual, argues Katie Gillespie.

toddler playing with puzzle pieces

Einstein said: “Play is the highest form of research.” So why is most research today devoid of play? Where has creativity gone in qual research and what are the stakes of this loss? How can we offer respondents the opportunity to engage their whole, silly selves in our studies?

While we expect it in quant, we’re now increasingly seeing qual research shifting to extractive, monotonous methodologies that risk boring respondents in the quest for expediency and which treat respondents as sites of mining data. But injecting play into qual need not be time consuming or overly complicated. When we ask our respondents to “close your eyes and imagine…” they are catapulted in an instant into a creative state. Their minds and hearts come alive, and they return for just a few moments to a child-like state of wonder and awe.

Children, of course, have the unbridled capacity to create expansive imaginary worlds, meaningful imaginary friendships, and a joyful experience of the world where they don’t notice their own vulnerability. This imaginative capacity comes with no effort; it’s a natural state. Children have not yet learned to check themselves, to be self-conscious about their desires, or to be worried about the mundane realities of life as an adult.

The loss of play is one of the tragedies of growing up, and it’s one of the tragedies of the state of qual today. We conform to norms of seriousness and practicality. Becoming an adult too often means misplacing the creativity and imagination that allow us to dream our wildest dreams, unconstrained by the chains of practicality. In adulthood, our lives can be overtaken by ‘shoulds’ rather than ‘coulds’. 

But as adults, we yearn for a life ignited by possibility, hope, and vulnerability. There is no judgment in this kind of life. There is no one to please. We embrace silliness and let ourselves go. We giggle. When we feel like no one is watching or expecting something from us, we can be our whole selves.

We find that questions in qual that invite respondents to play are met with passion, emotional depth, and even gratitude at recovering a tiny bit of what they’ve lost. We access the kind of vulnerability that only comes from being silly or having fun. Invited into a state of imagination, truth is uncovered without second-guessing or perhaps without respondents even being aware of kernels of truth and how they can be transformed into insights. 

There are lots of ways to engage in creative play with question creation. Here are a few examples of how to engage respondents in play to excavate rich, imaginative responses.

Create the perfect soundtrack

Ask respondents to imagine they’ve been asked to soundtrack a brand, concept, or experience, choosing a song that perfectly captures the feeling they get from it. Ask them to talk about the genre, the lyrics, the artist themselves, the vibe of the song, and the associations they have with it. Music is deeply emotional and it accesses feelings we may not even know we have. Music becomes play. Getting respondents to think not only about the perfect song but also to reflect on why they chose it accesses a deeper expression of meaning.

Draw me a treasure map

Ask respondents to recall the creativity of going on a treasure hunt – this is perfect for consumer journey research. Ask them to think about their journey finding a product they love, from the initial idea of wanting or needing something through to using it. Encourage non-linear thinking and ask them to note the challenges, friction, and rewarding ‘a-ha’ moments. Have them map the emotional moments on the map, the practical challenges to overcome, and ask them to narrate why they’ve drawn it the way they have. In this approach, respondents are intrepid hunters for treasures, and this enlivens the process.  

Eulogise your favorite brand

As a creative twist on the deprivation study, tell respondents that a product or brand has died and they are responsible for finding the words to memorialise that loss. Here, you get at what that brand or product meant to them. Ask them to talk about all of the product or brand’s virtues as well as what the world will be like now that it’s gone. Imagining this scenario is world-making work, and world-making is at the heart of play.

Pretend you’re in a debate with yourself

Present respondents with a topic for debate and ask them to ‘play’ both sides. It could be about a concept, a brand, a product, or a category.  Their job is to present a convincing case for each side, intensifying the stakes and nuance in the debate. It both takes them out of themselves, freeing them from having to take a side, and helps them access more reflective and creative energies in imagining (and arguing for) the points they might not normally consider. 

How can you imagine play in qual? What kinds of questions could return respondents to a child-like state of possibility, passion, and meaning?

Katie Gillespie is head of research at Sympler