Alive minds: The 5 mindsets a Qualitative researcher needs (needs even more) today

We recently completed a regional Qualitative research study on skin care in South East Asia. The final review got us talking about the variables that led to the project being an inspiring experience that changed the team’s perspective on some fundamental aspects about market and the consumer. There are many different tools that were used throughout the project to ensure success (perhaps material for a later blog entry), but in this entry we want to highlight some of the necessary attitudes/mind sets underpinning the outcome of the project.

Used to be, that fact driven decision making predominated the corporate world. It worked well because the world was complicated but still mostly explainable through causal relationships. Qualitative research too followed the “recipe approach” (best practices and established expertise).  However, times have changed, we live in a complex world and often there is no linear relationship between things. This has shifted the role of Qualitative research from being diagnostic or even exploratory to providing inspiration and foresight to brands/clients. This requires Qualitative researchers to adopt a different mind set.

  1. Ask questions you do not know an answer to (this is the starting point for innovation)
    • In the new world, we need to re-examine the way we think about problems a brand/client is confronting. It is easy to lapse into classifying a problem in familiar ways like a positioning study. What is more important is to really step back, review existing information and then begin to outline what the problem really is about. It requires a different kind of conversation with the client and the ability to frame the research question in a more defined and inspiring way. Way too often we receive and allow flat, narrow questions to be asked; questions that do not open the field of investigation and are questions we may even know the answer to
  2. The curator’s mind set
    • Existing data sources i.e. the primary research itself as well as information from the client’s archives has always been the focus of research analysis. In today’s world information is widely available. It is important to be able to go beyond these sources and expand the sources to include social media, other kinds of ‘experts’ like bloggers etc.
    • That requires a Qualitative researcher to learn to connect the dots across diverse sources and recognize patterns while still keeping the context of discovery in mind. In a way that moves a Qualitative researcher from merely relying on data/facts but to bring in a layer of intuition and expertise that is their own to filter and give a distinctive voice to the information gathered
  3. Think of possibilities, what doesn’t exist, extrapolate
    • When Qualitative research takes on the role of inspiring clients and brands, not just informing them; it is important to be able to ignite passions. Imagine the possibilities and bringing these to live for the client/brand is critical. Intimacy with consumer and their lives is one way to achieve this
  4. Balance contemplation with collaboration expertise
    • Qualitative researchers have always been good at analysing by reflecting on what they hear or do not hear, what they see. Today, besides solitary analysis, working in a collaborative way with clients and consumers both is important. The ability to build consensus across diverse objectives and view points, bring together different cultures and self awareness are all important aspects of this
  5. Finally, Learn to live with ambiguity
    • In today’s complex world where change is on going and unpredictable the Qualitative researcher too needs to learn to be flexible, change course as the project moves along and to remain productive even amid ambiguity

“Learning never exhausts the mind” Leonardo da Vinci

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Irrelevance of the consumer in the research process

Recently some of our recent work and a sharing session with another agency led to an interesting discussion. First here are the research examples that started the discussion:

The question is have consumers become less relevant in the research process today? Here are just 2 issues around this question:

1) Besides the apparent boredom of researchers and marketers with ‘traditional’ focus groups, the kind of questions that are being asked by brands have changed. In the first example above, research was meant to provide insight to inspire rather than just explore. With innovation becoming a necessity for brands, the role of research is changing from evaluation or exploration to inspiration. This requires us to look at research approaches differently and therefore re consider how and when we involve consumers in the research process

2) With the pervasiveness of the digital world, there are many more ways to get to consumer voice, as is evident in the increase of passive research. These new approaches lead to questions of whether direct interactions with consumers (online communities, face to face interviews etc.) really tell us the ‘truth’ or spontaneous responses like passive research does

Despite the changing ways, consumer voice has never been more important in organizations. Consumers have not become irrelevant, just what consumer voice within organizations is all about and how we get to it has changed.



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Creative structuring; inspiration during the research process

A recent project brought us to India to understand its design sensibility and its future evolution for a telecommunications client. India is a country where inequality thrives. High rises for the wealthy side by side with hutments for blue collar workers; 4 generations under one roof, modern beside traditional and so on. No other country has this level of inequality in the world.

Extreme inequality in India

However, since we wanted to understand the future of India we needed to go beyond current day understanding of inequality. Some preliminary desk research led us to a social enterprise in Mumbai.

Tucked away in an old warehouse, working with one old PC, a Wi-Fi connection and an old telephone; are the offices where people work tirelessly in the humid weather of Mumbai.

They work to collect clothes, stationery, toys that people from the cities may have no use of. These are slowly sorted and eventually made available to people in villages. And this is where the organization presented us a new outlook. Rather than work on an age old ‘giver-taker’ unequal relationship; the organization tries to equalize the relationship. So villagers have to identify a common social issue e.g. building bridges and work to build it in exchange for what is collected from the city.

The social enterprise gave us a completely different view of inequality in India, how its nature is changing and what the future interpretation of equality/inequality in India can be.

Too often in research projects, we tend to take a narrow and focused view on the specific target audience or issue at hand. We forget about how research can be structured to bring about a more inspirational and forward looking perspective to the issue.
New perspectives do not emerge serendipitously. They have to be carefully built in. They can be found in many different ways. Here are a few:


There are many different ways to enable inspirational learning during the research journey. We just need to plan and let go of our tunnel vision. That is when change begins.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
― Socrates



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The increasing march of artifacts in the world of a Qualitative researcher

Let’s rewind to the early 90s. A Qualitative researcher would pack his/her bags for their field trip. In the bag: Kodak disposable camera, cassette tape recorder and paper to take field notes, observation protocols and interview guides. After the field trip, back in the office the researcher did his/her analysis on hand written analysis grids using hand written field notes and then painstakingly prepared a presentation on acetates/slides. At the end, the client got a type written report.

Back to 2014, a Qualitative researcher’s world of work objects has exploded. There is the digital audio recorder, mobile phone, digital camera, laptop/computer, maybe even a tablet, video camera, note books, all kinds of analysis software, video editing software etc.

This accumulation of objects is across the different stages of the project from conceptualization to discovery to analysis and finally to sharing insights. For the purpose of this blog we are focussing on the final stage of a project i.e. sharing insights with clients as it raises interesting questions about how we view insights, trade them with clients and eventually the kind of relationships we have with clients.


The artifacts: In those final stages of insight delivery and planning we now have video clippings, inspiration cards, flip charts, post its, visualizations, story boards, future scenario cards and of course presentation documents to name just a few. They are getting complex and involving our different senses beyond just sound and sight. The processes surrounding these artifacts are now the collaborative ways of working i.e. client workshops, co creation sessions.

Values: communication and storytelling as a way of gaining insight, insight as a currency for exchange, the belief that involvement in insight creation is the first step to action, research value creation is in the process and experience that client’s go through not just in the analysis provided in the form of a research report

Creator and consumer: for researchers the creation and use of artifacts is about not just being the developer and communicator of insights but also to be an enabler of experiences for client organisations and employees. This comes with a re definition of ‘expertise’ and a different kind of power sharing between researcher and client. It is an interesting shift in Asian organizations where clean cut hierarchies and ownership of knowledge and expertise predominate.

The march of artifacts comes with the change of the qualitative work culture and work processes. We would love to hear about some of your qualitative work artifacts and the additional understanding of the changing nature of Qualitative research reporting.


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Reliance on family as the micro infrastructure in Asia

A recent online community study among Millenials highlighted the importance of family among Asian Youth. Page upon page talked about the love of family, the reliance on family and its ‘super importance’.

Not surprising in cultures where people live with their parents till they marry (often in their early 30s). Asian families are close knit even if they are nuclear families. Respect is accorded to parents and grandparents for all the sacrifices they have made in bringing up children. At least one day of the weekend is devoted to family gatherings as part of filial piety.

Families are heavily relied on for emotional, financial and mental support. They are the only ones trusted without question. Besides material acquisitions, work achievement, having a ‘happy family’ is a big barometer of success.

Therein lies a fundamental difference in the role of families in Asia vs. those in other parts of the world. Families in other parts of the world are a means to developing strong adults who will contribute to society. In Asia, the family is an end in itself. Parents focus on building a family and success is measured on this.


There are many reasons why the Asian family is the focus, the end in itself. One reason for the focus on the family is that Asian countries are often developing markets. They are characterized with poor infrastructure and social infrastructure is not as reliable. In the absence of trust in social amenities, people develop a reliance on family as the final port of trust and reliability. Social connectedness through family and friends provides a safety net to people that social infrastructure is unable to provide e.g. being able to call a family member or family friend at the hospital to get a doctor’s appointment faster rather than waiting for hours through the public system.

This reliance on family appears to be taking on a different and even more intense turn in Asia, especially developed Asia. Millenials are relying on family even more. Raised in families with rising incomes, Millenials have been well taken care of. They have become accustomed to a carefree life. Family is taking precedence over other parts of Millennial life. So it seems that the Asian Millennial is likely to adhere to, even strengthen the belief that family in itself is a goal to achieve.

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Nature of clutter in Asian homes

Visiting middle class homes in Asia, we are always struck by the clutter we encounter inside the homes in both developed and developing Asian markets. The external chaotic environment is mirrored in the inside of homes. Status is important to Asians but it comes from the brands one carries, less often from the private spaces one lives in.

Here are some thoughts on the nature of this clutter in Asian homes. January 2014 Asia Trend Bulletin: ‘5 Unmissable Asian Consumer Trends for 2014’ talks about ‘Space Strapped’. With the increasing space constraint one can only wonder how the nature of this clutter will change. Certainly the way Asian consumers look at value will change. How they prioritise what to acquire and accumulate will change.

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