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April 22, 2021

Top Qual Tips 1: the generation vs illustration dichotomy

This is my “announcement” of a new occasional series of practical qual tips, which I’m calling Top Qual Tips. Before long, the chattering classes will be casually referring to them as The TQTs. “Read the latest TQT?” they’ll splutter, over lunchtime tapas and mescal at the local roller disco. “No,” will come the response. “How did you get in here? This place hasn’t been a roller disco since 1982. This is a Pets At Home warehouse facility. Now leave that gerbil alone or I’m calling the police. And take those albondigas with you.”

So, to business: TQT No1. Generation vs illustration.

It’s really just a rule of thumb I came up with, aimed at non-qual-researchers or clients who are planning a project in which they have an inkling qual might be useful. It’s this: at a very basic level, before you think any further about methodology or sample or anything else, ask yourself whether this qual’s basic purpose is “generative” or “illustrative”.

The purpose is really to properly identify illustrative qual projects early on and thereby make sure they are designed with their real purpose in mind. This liberates them into being the best they can be. Because otherwise, illustrative projects can be commissioned that are also expected to generate insights. It’s like driving with the handbrake on and the insights end up being thin too. Worst of both worlds.

 So what do I mean by generative vs illustrative? It’s pretty simple:

  • Generative – any qual whose main role is to generate new insights into a topic – explore it and tell us things we didn’t previously know, or weren’t sure about. Isn’t that all qual, you ask? Almost, but not quite … because a small minority of projects are illustrative and the illustrative project is quite a different beast.

  • Illustrative – where a piece of qual work comes in after the insights have been generated and the territory mapped for the client, to bring it to life. It’s not there to generate any new learnings, just to illustrate the learnings we already have. Typically this is about showing the reality of people’s lives through pictures, visuals and films, or it can be using sounds, objects, anything to help an audience connect with, ingest and subsequently remember the research findings.

I should also say, many projects have elements of both – and that’s of course fine. But do ask yourself quite hard: am I going to be using the outputs in a basically illustrative way, or to establish new insights? Of course it’s not always going to be either/or. But asking the question makes you think more clearly about how the outputs of the research are going to be used – how you want the findings to live on within the client organisation after debriefing is over. And it really helps you think clearly about what the recruitment and fieldwork needs to look like to produce those outputs.

It may be that you want to do generative and illustrative qual, but realise you need to dedicate some particular parts of the fieldwork more purely to the illustration task. Or it may be that you realise, actually, we need a separate illustration piece after the main qual fieldwork is done.

Or it may be that what participants have been doing in the name of generating insights will also double up nicely as an illustration – collages and scrap books, little clips from interviews, pictures taken in-home and so on (usually it does work well). But it’s good to ask the question: do we need something more dedicated here?

Typical examples of illustrative pieces are:

  • in segmentations where we are “bringing a segment to life”

  • in a shopper study, where perhaps footfall and EPOS data has identified a particular interesting purchase behaviour and you now want to just show people doing it and listen to them talking about it

  • as an accompaniment to innovation research, you want to show the exact place in a family’s home life where there’s a practical gap or problem a product can address (say with kitchen appliance designs, for example).

There are many more of course; arguably all qual has some kind of illustrative aspect, I’m just picking out examples where a pure illustration piece might be needed.

What kind of approaches might you see then in a dedicated illustrative piece that are different from a “generative” methodology?

  • recruitment may well be different from a generative piece, because having the previous insight work at your disposal allows you to focus now on particular types of people you already know are interesting or important. You’re not casting the net and hoping, you are homing in on particular people. When you meet them, you can go more or less directly to those behaviours; you don’t have to spend time working out what they are. You can just prompt them and get them to show you what they do. You produce a lot of relevant illustrative material this way.

  • You have freedom to be a lot more visual in the data you collect – and you’ll need it. Ultimately, your outputs have to be strongly visual, so designating a piece of work as “illustrative” frees you up to really focus on that in the fieldwork. So, you’re going to be thinking of film, of capturing detailed pictures of relevant environments like in-store fixtures and signage, of picking up objects that can represent an idea, a segment or a kind of person. Think audio too – turns of phrase, but also music that helps capture an idea or a person’s behaviour.

  • Linked to that, you can also deploy short-form methodologies that you avoid like the plague when seeking depth, e.g. 5-minute vox pops to capture some talking heads in situ.

  • Perhaps you might bring in a creative non-researcher to help craft the outputs, since the task is really one of producing an engaging piece of communication, whether in a film, a workshop presentation or a slide deck.

One of the most enjoyable pieces of work I’ve been part of was a partnership with segmentation gurus Bonamy Finch on consumer insurance segments. It worked so well, I think, because we separated out the stages so clearly. I did an up-front generative stage, Stage 1, full of creative material and itself really rich – but the client had the foresight to commission, after the central Stage 2 quant segmentation, a Stage 3 dedicated to segment illustration. We recruited three in-home “ethno-depths” per segment, which I conducted with professional film-maker Tim Crawley ( TCTV Films ) on hand, designed to generate between them a three-minute segment film.

Removing the creative shackles: focussing on illustration for what it is can free you up as a communicator and transform the qual piece. It’s not as scary as it seems …

As an interviewer, I was freed up to focus on eliciting the key things from the participants that I knew we needed to be in the segment film (but with them talking naturally about themselves, not pre-scripted). I intervened and mmm-ed much less than in a ‘normal’ qual depth interview, so the audio on the footage would be clean; and we took footage and stills of household items that reflected the segment we were illustrating. We also used visuals from Stage 1 scrapbooks and collages in the final three-minute segment films, a kind of montage approach. The films were then used in the client business to educate staff on customer segments and remember how they differ in their needs and attitudes around risk and insurance issues.

Nine times out of ten, qual is commissioned to be basically generative in nature. But asking the “is it really illustrative?” question early on can be liberating for those qual projects that are really about illustration of already established insights. It allows it to do that illustration job properly, unshackled from the need to generate insights. Illustrative qual might be seen as fluffier than generative qual, because all the hard thinking is done. But it’s actually no easier, it’s just a different kind of challenge – a creative challenge.

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Written by Simon Riley

Simon Riley does interesting research

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Shore is a UK-based qualitative research consultancy run by Simon Riley.

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