So here it is…I’m finally blogging about things that motivate me and I hope you find them enjoyable. For my first entry I’m cheating a little beacuse this is an article that was published in the newsletter for the Sensory and Consumer Sceinces Division of IFT. I’d love to hear your comments.
Qualitative. A word that as sensory and consumer scientists might make us nervous. After all we are scientists, aren’t we? And scientists are supposed to deal in facts, numbers, data, and hypothesis. Qualitative is open to interpretation, not concrete, so…qualitative. In the journey that has been my career – traveling through product development, marketing, and sensory and consumer science – I have gained a great appreciation and a passion for qualitative research and what it can bring to a project in the ways it can bring consumers to life.
As a young product development scientist my first encounters with qualitative research were awkward to say the least. Hours upon hours in a dark room nibbling (okay, devouring) candy listening to consumers point out every flaw of my latest creation. It was painful and humbling. In some cases, it was the first time certain things were said or pointed out. How could that be? What about all the intelligent people that got the product this far and what are the reasons that we didn’t think of those things? Maybe there was something to this qualitative thing after all. I decided that what needed to understand was how to dig for the “golden nuggets” in what the consumer was telling us. Here are some things that have helped me over the years and maybe they will be helpful to you also.
- You need to know what you are digging for and the best place to dig. Just like with quantitative research, having a clear objective can make or break a project. It is critical because without it the discussions can be so unstructured that it is hard to glean insights from them. You also want to be sure you are talking to the “right” consumers. The word “right” can have many interpretations here but you want to be sure that the consumer are articulate, can express themselves and have the relevant experiences to help guide you.
- You need to prepare for your dig with the proper tools. You need to consider what type of qualitative you should conduct, where you should conduct it, and the best facilitator to lead this expedition. It is important to consider if the facilitator has relevant experience in the type of qualitative you are considering, if they have special training, and if they have or in some cases don’t have experience with your product categories.
- You need to keep your own tools honed. It can be important to keep your powers of observations sharp during quantitative usage studies. It might be in observing the consumer that you see what they have not been able to articulate. For example, watching how a consumer takes a meal out of the microwave might lead to a new package design. It is this type of “nugget” that can be refined and validated in future research.
- Treat the consumer like gold. It doesn’t matter if it is a home visit, one on one, focus group, or any other form of qualitative – consumers are giving of their precious time and are giving a part of themselves to us. This happens every time they participate in any research but even more so in qualitative where they don’t just answer questions but allow us to probe even further and in some rare instances to get very intimate with them. We need to remember to treat them as the precious resource they are.
- You may not recognize the gold the first time you look at it (or hear it). As a sensory and consumer scientist I have learned to listen, listen, listen and then listen some more. Consumers are trying to tell us something the best way the can. We are the trained observers and we need to translate what they say, what their body language tells us, what the social setting is telling us. Consumers are not going to deliver that “ah-ha” moment to us on a sliver platter. If we are waiting for that to happen it will be a long time in coming. It is our responsibility to put it all together and find that “golden nugget”.
- Even though you have seen this nugget before, look it over again. It is important to let consumers tell you what you think you already know. The marketplace is ever changing and they way consumers interact with your products is ever changing too. It is a chance to learn what would be a good match for them, what they are looking for, what they hope and wish for relative to their experiences.
Qualitative research can be frustrating but can also be tremendously rewarding. Even if we feel more comfortable swimming in data, qualitative can give us the reasons why behind the acceptance scores, help us delve into preference, can give us language to make our questionnaires more consumer friendly, show us how to improve our products, and can even give us entirely new ideas. If we apply our genuine curiosity as scientists to qualitative we can collect more and more “golden nuggets”. It is in those nuggets, those intimate moments with consumers that we discover.