Why Qual had to Change

In an age where innovation is de rigeur, we look into how well qualitative is keeping up with the times.

“You must have mis-recruited me,” says Chris Forrest of qualitative house The Nursery, “I’m not sure there is lots of innovation in qualitative.” Moreover, he feels there’s no need for innovation: “Qualitative research is quite evolved… a major tool for us is the good old focus group…it’s just a very good way to get people to interact with each other.”

But far from being a Luddite Forrest is innovating, it just takes him a while to acknowledge this. And that’s not dissimilar from the initial reaction we get from others we spoke to.

So, where’s the innovation?

There are two emerging areas of innovation in qualitative, and both are online: hybrid techniques that capture quantitative and increasingly qualitative information; and, techniques that capitalise on web 2.0 and the increasingly participatory nature of the web.

These reflect some emerging ‘truths’. The fact that emotions play a more significant role in decisions than rational quantitative surveys suggest, hence the use of a hybrid model to infuse the data with emotional feedback. The fact that consumer presence and attention is shifting online, hence the use of online as a data collection method not just for quantitative data. And the extension of ethnographic techniques online where self-expression is abundant.

Qualitative agencies are starting to embrace online. As Sandrine McClure of Reperes (one of the first agencies in Second Life) puts it: “We’ve moved away from the ‘let’s do qual. the way we used to do it and let’s put it on the internet’ to now learning how to do it online properly.”

Hybrid: more than the sum of the parts

So-called hybrid techniques are not a recent innovation. Quantitative practitioners have included qualitative elements in questionnaires for some time to source rich, unprompted data. But here’s the difference: the new hybrid is driven by the qualitative folks.

For Forrest at least, the motive for developing hybrid techniques was defensive as well as progressive: “[we developed hybrid] because nobody is using all the theory we currently have about how the brain works, and we were going to conferences and finding that quanties were raiding the qual. toolbox…to make quant. surveys more interesting – they were taking some of our pie!”

Forrest uses hybrid techniques for brand communications work. They comprise three projective techniques: word association; a proximity/predisposition measure; and a semiotics-based picture sort based on the work of Gerald Zaltman. McClure deploys hybrid studies, which are similarly based on projective techniques, when developing brand platforms for new brands.

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