In this First Round Review profile I share tips, dispel myths, and make the case for qualitative research.Read more
*Originally published in Quirk’s December 2018
We are all junkies now. Jonesing for the pleasures of repetitive rituals despite diminishing returns. Staggering through public places, oblivious to anything but getting our fix. Binging while the untended tasks mount and our eyes dry out. For those participating in the modern digital age, this is our blue-lit selfie.
As we become increasingly digitally connected we are growing increasingly disconnected from one another. Loneliness is on the rise according to the UCLA Loneliness scale. So is the number of companies and publications pushing the practice of “Digital Detox”. What societal tension is this playing on? A Pew Research study conducted this past January reveals that the rates of technology adoption among Americans are going up, while inversely, our faith in the internet as a positive social force is going down. Books examining the impact of the digital age on our social skills like Michaela Launerts’ #GirlCode outline how the FOMO generation is held back by anxiety over in-person interaction. A Snap/Cassandra study of Gen Z revealed that 85% would rather have a small, close group of friends than a sprawling circle of associates, but their favorite activities to engage with while with friends are almost all screen-based. We continue adopting more digital tools even though these modes of engagement bring us less satisfaction and erode our interpersonal skills.
The zombie hordes streaming through our devices are more than just a current mainstay of sci-fi – they’re a reflection of us. Perhaps it’s time to take that first step (with a decomposing stump dragging behind) and accept that we have a problem.
I’m no Luddite rallying for a full retreat to an analog lifestyle. The ubiquity of devices and internet access brings us an ever-expanding bounty that I profoundly enjoy and rely upon. Crafting and sharing this article sure would’ve been a pain without it. Nevertheless, our always on, always updating culture is warping minds (and spines). We need a healthier balance. We need to create more space for face-to-face. Qualitative research provides a special opportunity for just that kind of rehab.
Over the course of my moderating career I have seen my research participants’ urge to interact increase to a fever pitch. Keeping the discussion contained has grown more challenging in recent years. Even getting them to leave when the interview is over calls for more nudging now. This holds true for all in-person methodologies, across markets, and in every demographic (young Millennials and Gen Z “digital natives” included). Unloading thoughts and feelings has always been cathartic for research participants, but these days there is so much more to release. The other month a man in his early 20’s hung back to talk to me about a sick relative… after an interview for window treatments.
This form of digital detox is a happy by-product of my professional approach. Interviews start with everyone turning off their phones. In a no-wrong-answers, judgement-free zone, they take the lead while I actively listen and follow-up with empathic probes. To maintain engagement, I always try to sprinkle in some fun, creative exercises. Backs straighten, eyes lock, and minds open. While zombies might stagger into the room, they all can be brought to life through conversation. Study after study has demonstrated that people – no matter how device-dependent – still possess the fundamentals of interpersonal skills. I recently had a room of heavy smartphone users breathlessly building on one another’s real-word examples as well as more abstract thoughts to bring definition to the concept of thoughtful design. Give people the right forum and format and the floodgates will open.
Tapping into this unmet need for IRL engagement presents a couple of opportunities for companies in any sector. One is providing compelling, non-digital interactive experiences as an activation or, better yet, as an ongoing part of their offering. Another is to team up with a qualitative pro like myself to get to know their consumers.
Building businesses without connecting to customers or gnawing on the same old data bones makes companies zombie-like too. Let’s engage with real people, in real life. Let’s go out and eat some brains!
KNect365 and The MRX Event quoted me on forecasting AI's impact on research over the next year...Read more
In that dark focus facility back room, behind the two-way mirror, clients enjoy the power of seeing without being seen. But with that power comes a certain responsibility: gathering insights! While there are always attendees who would rather spend the whole time texting and Facebooking, most are observing - even enthusiastically so. And yet, these clients still might not be getting as much as they could be from the research.
As a moderator I want my partners behind the glass to be actively listening, anticipating my questions, passing follow-ups in to me on notes if there's anything I need to get to before the end of the session, constructing consumer stories out of their feedback, and identifying patterns as the study moves along. However, it's hard to sit quietly and not become just a passive watcher. (I've always felt I've had it easier than those in the back room.) Clients must contend with the distractions of internet, darkness, and bottomless snacks. It's also easier to miss the forest for the trees: that one loud-mouthed outlier participant; or just a loud shirt.
So, how do you help your clients to pay attention AND watch with a critical eye? You have to moderate the back room as well with setup, engagement, and energy.
Lay out the study's approach and your expectations for your clients to prime them for productive observation. Hopefully your direct client is already invested in the research outcome, but all back room attendees should be made aware/reminded of what the objectives are and what's at stake for the business before interviews begin. (This is also a good way to get everyone on the same page and away from separate agendas.) Walk them through the discussion guide and let them know what you expect to achieve in each of the different sections.
Keep them on their toes with regular check-ins before interviews conclude and quick debriefs in-between. I like to ask them what they're seeing before I start in on my own distillation of the interviews. As long as it serves the research, I'll also take their direction on adjustments to the interviews going forward. This not only keeps them alert, but feeling empowered with a sense of ownership over the results. It's also important to remember that maintaining a high level of energy in the front room is just as important for the respondents as it is for those on the other side of the two-way mirror.
Even with setup, regular engagement, and high energy it's hard to keep the whole back room on task. Sometimes it helps to give them a little homework. Here are a couple of ideas that have worked well for me in the past:
- Everyone must write down an "A-Ha" (a big idea that addresses the research objectives or at least something surprising) on a Post-It and then stick them all up on the wall to review during debriefs.
- Share a note-taking template with grids that correlate with the discussion guide for them to fill out and refer back to in group discussion. Of course, you'll want digital copies to forward, but if you can get them to use a printed version it's a big win - you've gotten them away from their laptop.
Got a back room tactic that helps keep everyone attentive in the right way? I'd love to hear from you!