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  • Dr. Sharon Livingston

How to be Creative with Qualitative Research


Are you thinking about developing a standard guide or adding some creative or projective exercises to your Focus Groups? Whether you’re the client or the group leader, there are some steps you can take to get yourself and the team prepared to get new insights.

Take small steps: why not start by doing something different during the warm-up/introduction part of a focus group. As an example, try having respondents introduce themselves as if they were five years old. What were they like then. How would Mom describe them at that age? Dad? What did they want to be when they grew up? What was their favorite thing to do back then? What did they like most about themselves at that time? This playful approach helps to more quickly move respondents to their real selves – loosening tongues and opening conversations from deeper levels. It’s particularly good for Physicians and other Professionals who feel the need to pontificate and puff themselves up.


Take gentle command: Some people on the team are still confused about the difference between a questionnaire and a guide. Remind them that you/the moderator will cover all the key points in the guide but will do so qualitatively by following the natural flow of the conversation. Also take some of the pressure off yourself by remembering this. . . Generally, clients complain about the moderator NOT following the guide when they are annoyed about something else.


Perhaps they missed an opportunity to prove a point with a choice verbatim that a pet question might have elicited…


They don’t like the responses they’re getting.


They have another moderator they would have preferred working with.


Don’t take it personally unless you’re not getting the information they need AND that information is there for the taking.

Make them an offer they can’t refuse: When you feel you have enough rapport with the backroom attendees, suggest using a creative technique to go for the gold.


Here’s how to do it. Invite them in this way: “Does anyone here have an objection to trying a little different approach to getting at the underlying issues?”


The key word in this question is OBJECTION. Unless, there truly is a very strong back lash, most people will answer, “No.” You’ve bought their support with a simple intervention. This works for a couple of reasons. It gives people a chance to say NO. None of us have had enough opportunities to register our NO’s. Research shows than when given a chance to say No vs. Yes on a preference or attitudinal choice question, people tend to say No. Once they have their No out of the way, they become more agreeable. The trick part of this invitation is that a No is actually a YES to our request. In addition, in thinking about their response, most people realize they actually do NOT have a rational objection to the use of a creative technique and convince themselves that their NO did make sense. It’s a WIN-WIN situation.


Creating Client Readiness

Set the stage: put out toys and crayons in the backroom as well as the front room. This will whet the client’s appetite for what’s to come. In the front room, it tells respondents to be prepared for something different as well as expressive. Even if the crayons and toys are never used, it puts people in a more creative frame of mind.


Post signs that say “Be Creative”: research shows that the single most effective action one can take for the front and back room’s creative productivity is simply to invite them to “be creative.” The most ideas in ideation sessions were registered after this simple intervention. A creative mood in the backroom opens the door and almost begs for creative process in the front.


Beyond information: some of our clients are stuck when it comes to the guide – they think of it as an exhaustive list of questions which must be asked and answered. That can be a bone of contention and area of great frustration to the moderator. I’d like to suggest a reframe: The reality is that the guide is every team member’s forum to demonstrate that [s]he knows his category and all the issues at hand. Adding questions makes her look knowledgeable and smart to the rest of her team. Instead of viewing the guide as a daunting drill, invite all of the team members to build as thorough a guide as possible, to be sure all questions and concerns are reflected, including a creative technique or two. Everyone will be encouraged to add their ideas, including you. The guide will circulate from team member to team member; client to agency and back to you. It will have performed its function of helping everyone be seen for their informed smart self and well as assist all in understanding and buying into the objectives of the study. However . . . it will be a tome!! Take heart! Call a final meeting just before the research begins, say an hour or two. At that time, invite those who show up to identify the critical questions in each section. You’ll find that there are only a few. This will give you the time you need to address their marketing problems and consider using an interesting technique to get under the surface.


Desensitize yourself: If you’ve been wanting to include a projective exercise, like guided imagery, but lack the courage to actually conduct the exercise, try this. Incorporate a guided imagery exercise in your guide – with the caveat to the client that you will employ it “if time allows.” Then you have the freedom to use it or not, while building interest in the back room. It may not be until you’ve run a few groups later that you actually perform exercise. Usually it naturally follows because the clients’ interest is piqued and they begin to request it and pay attention because it’s new and intriguing. When they see the value of the results, you’ll be able to use it more often and suggest other creative techniques.


Be creative and have fun,

Dr. Sharon Livingston