OPINION2 July 2014

Speaking easier

Researchers are often told to just be quiet and listen, but Sabine Stork of Thinktank believes that creating an equal and open dialogue with consumers could unlock useful insights.

But why on earth would we want to remove one of the cornerstones of the art of qualitative research: engaging people in conversation? Verbal communication is an important part of human interaction and at the heart of good qual is the ability to engage with other people on a human level, not treat them as objects to be studied. And yes, asking stupid questions and over-probing is likely to produce misleading answers, but a genuine dialogue will involve questions, be they for clarification or provocation.

I’m not alone believing that real dialogue – subject to interpretation – does produce insight, particularly into people’s thinking styles and constructs, and hence brand and sector relationships. It’s true that it’s less suited to finding out exactly how they make decisions at a granular level, but it’s one way of accessing consumer thoughts and beliefs.

So, we at Thinktank wondered, what would happen if we made a concerted effort to create an equal and open dialogue with consumers? If we talked to people as people, acted naturally, instead of styling ourselves as moderators or interviewers, and them as consumers?

Speak easy

We deliberately set out to do this with a group that is treated with marketing awe, mythologised… and easily observed online: hip young people.

As a first step. we needed to be where they were, but rather than just observing or interrupting their activity, we wanted to make an active contribution to their night out. So we went where they hang out, and where they eat and drink on a Thursday evening. We took ourselves down to Brixton Arcade in London and erected a kind of speakeasy – a playful pop-up conversation bar with a menu of topics for consumers to choose from. We invited them for a glass of wine (in line with our motto “Free Speech, Free Drink, Free Thinking”) and engaged with them on a variety of subjects, including Food, Britain in 2014, Men and Women and Technology.


We brought along some ‘conversation starters’ to get things going (some in question format, others just as statements or even images) but from then on our researchers shed any purely professional agenda and talked to people as people – with the simple goal of getting to know them a little through chatting.

Meandering conversations that didn’t stay on topic were fully allowed and, importantly, our researchers contributed in a genuine way, following up on remarks that interested them rather than actively directing the chat. They also pitched in with their own ideas and thoughts – just like in a real life conversation! Finally, we made sure that our speakeasy barmen and women fitted in by letting two of our in-house millennials do the talking.

Context is key

First of all, and here’s a nod to behavioural economics, we clearly saw the importance of context. A pop-up bar fitted well into the friendly, relaxed (if busy) environment of the Arcade. This meant that we engaged an audience different from group participants – articulate, interesting but a little more alternative and possibly more sceptical of commercial enterprise.

Conversationally, they were confident in speaking out but, refreshingly, there was no ranting, and very little posturing. What may have helped is that we often encountered them in pairs – there was as much of an exchange between them than between us and them, so we got an insight into the relationship between them, rather than mere takes on the topics.

Our speakeasy turned out to be true to its name – it generated easy-going, relaxed conversation. These chats seemed more raw and spontaneous than pre-recruited groups, depths, or even intercepts. Yes, we got more candour but perhaps more importantly, we experienced conversational styles that felt a lot more real. There was, for example, much more cursing than we have ever experienced in a more professional interviewing context!

Letting go of the ‘focus’ of our chats meant that conversations ebbed and flowed and circled around certain topics. We still got content that was ‘on topic’ but we got there in a much less linear fashion than when working to a topic guide. For our researchers, the experience felt liberating. No performance to the viewing room, no topic guide as long as your arm, plus conversation partners that were happy to talk and ‘owned’ the conversation as much as we did.

Stay natural

Clearly this method wouldn’t work for every project, but we are wondering if we can make the most of some of the positives of our Brixton speakeasy experience to ensure qual works to its strengths…

  • Can we find more natural occasions to chat to people while they’re going about their business, potentially adding some interest to what they’re doing anyway? And wherever possible, can we continue to recruit ‘natural’ groups of people so we get a sense of how they speak to each other, not just to us?
  • Can we give research participants more ownership of the topic guide – for example, by letting them pick the sequence of subjects to be discussed?
  • Can we persuade clients to prioritise their topics to allow people to meander a little more, even waffle sometimes, acknowledging that non-linear conversation still will produce answers (and probably more genuine ones) just as much as putting people on the spot?
  • And can we aim for more equal conversational relationships in which both parties feel comfortable asking questions?

Sabine Stork is a partner at Thinktank.