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  • Writer's pictureCraig Griffin

The Future Of Qualitative Research: Reflections from QUAL360 APAC Conference 2016

Attending any Conference often provides a unique insight into the health and direction of an industry and this proved to be the case at last week’s Qual 360 APAC 2016 Conference in Singapore. Here are some thoughts on the outlook for the Qualitative Industry.

Re-Positioning Qualitative Research

I think it’s fair to say that the market research industry, with its new data sources and technology-based entrants, is going through a period of huge self-reflexivity. This was certainly evident in this Conference, as many speakers set out to defend the usefulness of Qualitative research or find a way to re-position it around gaps that other solutions cannot provide.

At one extreme, it has been argued (not in this Conference of course) that qualitative research has become almost redundant, replaced by an almost limitless supply of big data. Another argument is that listening to consumers (via social media listening technologies) takes away the inherent bias of asking research questions and gives a truer unframed read on what people really think and feel.

As one speaker successfully argued, more data does not necessarily lead to a more cohesive narrative – in fact the opposite can be true – it can often lead to an increase in apparent discrepancies. Even if big data can successfully and clearly tell us the WHAT, the WHEN & the HOW it usually can’t tell us the WHY and Qualitative research, with its toolkit of creative approaches, can and should own the ability to explain.

The other clear role where qualitative can position itself is as a valuable input to the creative process. Qualitative research has always been an inherently creative discipline that attracts creative and free-spirited people – people well suited to work as part of a creative process. And qual people are great innovators – in this Conference we were introduced, for example, to the use of improvisation theatre as a tool in the creative process, and the use of tarot cards combined with storytelling techniques to go deeper into the subconscious mind. Qualitative research is changing – we appear to be spending less time on direct questioning and more time on task based activities. This also enhances the enjoyment factor for both participants and clients – and we all welcome a bit more fun in life, right?

Communicating & Using Qualitative Research

Another aspect of industry self-reflexivity evident was the examination of what exactly we should be providing to clients. It used to be a given – we would provide “insights” about a market, a category, a brand – usually via a report or presentation. Now we see video being used more to bring closer connections between organisations and their customers and to help internalise findings throughout an organisation We deliver consumer stories to route insights in the lives of real people living real lives. In doing so we seek to create empathy between producer and consumer. We also see more projects with the end outcomes being prototypes and ideas.

Triangulation & Hybrid Approaches

Many of the speakers presented case studies based on innovative hybrid qualitative approaches and I believe there are a number of forces shaping the adoption of such processes.

Firstly, there is an understanding of the increased complexity of the customer journey and an increasing awareness that one method alone cannot accurately describe or explain this complexity. Secondly, digital technologies have opened up cost effective new data sources and platforms, e.g. social media listening (data) and mobile ethnography (platform). Thirdly, as an industry we have increased our awareness of the limitations and biases of different methodologies and the consequent need to triangulate. Neuroscience and behavioural economics have taught us more on how the brain works and how choices are really made. We understand the importance of context and capturing experiences as they happen.

Focus on Culture

As a student of social anthropology, I was very happy to see a number of speakers emphasise the importance of understanding the cultural context, not just the obvious clichéd stuff that is often cited in studies, but the more subtle historical factors that can shape the psyche of a nation.

As a speaker demonstrated, can you really understand “beauty” in Korea without understanding how historical imperialism has shaped attitudes to self? Can you understand the demand for and consumption of luxury goods in China without considering the impact of the not so distant opening of the Chinese economy? These are often not answers available through qualitative questioning and even observational techniques – as they often represent the cultural sub-conscious. We need to continue to keep abreast of new thinking from within the social sciences and neuroscience and borrow and adapt their frameworks.

Concluding thoughts

I left this Conference feeling hugely optimistic about the future of Qualitative Research – I evidenced an industry that is taking control of its future by reacting and adapting to the changing market conditions & new technological possibilities with creativity and a strong sense of community and passion. An industry that will continue to explain WHY, that will solve contradictions and that will inspire and incite creativity for its clients.

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