Confusion over qual

By Flo Sayers

I had a confusing experience recently, at a talk run by the APG for Young Planners. The talk was titled ‘Behind the Mirror: An evening of talks, tools, interactive exercises and discussion to demystify qualitative research’.


Now I’ve only been at Sword & Stone for eighteen months, but I’ve been lucky enough to have observed and conducted quite a bit of qualitative research in that time. From the very the beginning I was sat in our focus groups as notetaker, and since then I’ve personally held a series of one-to-one interviews and moderated my own groups, on multiple different projects. While I am nowhere near being any sort of qual expert, I do feel that I have been given enough exposure to it so far that it doesn’t need to be ‘demystified’.


So I was confused when, in the Q+A at the end of the talk, one of the audience members asked: ‘This is really interesting – but how can we actually get involved in all of this?’


And I realised I had to check my privilege. Turns out, many of my peers in other agencies haven’t had the chance to do any qualitative research of their own at all. In fact, they were lucky if they’d had the chance to go along to a group and even sit behind the one-way mirror.


I was confused, but I was also indignant.



Why aren’t we, as a generation, involved in qual research?


Why are we so often expected to get our insights from trends reports and survey monkeys?


Why is our industry outsourcing and, in turn, devaluing this skill?

And does it even matter?


Well yes, it does matter. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every bit of qual research I’ve been involved in and I’ve learnt a lot from it too. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to get stuck in and to learn a new and challenging skill.


But I also think it’s made my work better.


When you get to actually do qualitative research, rather than just observe it, you suddenly have the freedom to follow your own line of questioning, test out your own hypotheses and adapt your thinking to the conversation as it progresses. And when that leads to a great insight that you know will make or break your argument – that is a fantastic feeling.


And later, when you come to process all the data that you yourself generated, the job is quicker and easier. Because you already know what you found out, but also because you have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of your insights after having discovered them first-hand.


So yes, it matters. And we know this. Around 30 Young Planners in London went along to that talk, because we’re fascinated by this stuff, and because we see how useful and relevant it could be in our work.


Junior Planners – let your agencies know that you’re fascinated. Ask to be involved, get yourself along to groups, practise one-to-one interviews. Throw yourself in to qual wherever and whenever you can.


And Senior Planners – a plea to you, on behalf of us all. We know we have different career paths to you. We haven’t started out in research like so many of you did. But unless you pass on these vital skills, they will get lost – and a whole generation of Planners, and the work that we produce for you, will suffer.


So teach us. Show us what to do and then let us try it for ourselves. Give us the chance to moderate sessions and tell us what went right, and what went wrong.


Let us practise and make us improve.


Demystify qual for us.­­­

Sword & Stone Social Impact Unit

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