An approach to research which challenges our traditional thinking and considers both rational and emotional elements of decision making.

One of my favourite projective techniques in qualitative research is De Bono’s Thinking Hats. For those who are not familiar with this approach, the respondent is asked to wear a series of different coloured “thinking hats”. Each hat represents a different type of thinking. For example, the white hat is about facts, the red hat is about feelings and the green hat focuses on creativity.

What’s great about this approach is that it forces people to think differently; because, let’s face it, the human brain is inherently lazy. We live in a busy world with barely a minute to spare and so we use shortcuts in our thinking. These shortcuts (or heuristics) might sometimes result in poor decision making- but more often than not, they aid us in the multitude of daily choices we have to make. At worse, heuristics are a necessary evil that allow us to navigate through the hectic modern world.

As researchers, there are times when we too need to challenge ourselves and the way we think. This very shift in our own thinking has allowed us to develop a ‘quant to qual’ approach, an approach which taps into and unearths different levels of thinking.

As you will know, it is research “tradition” to run a qualitative study first, then move on to a quantitative phase to validate the findings with robust numbers. This approach clearly makes sense, but at HRW we have developed an approach which switches things around…

We tend to believe that qualitative research is the only way in which we can gain deep insight. Probing and projective techniques are the best way to get beneath the surface and really unearth motivations and beliefs that are not generally expressed through standard questioning approaches. These tools are tried and tested and genuinely provide deep insight.

However, whilst it is certainly true that qualitative research gives us these deeper insights, there are also inherent risks related to the increasing desire to access subconscious beliefs that can’t easily be expressed or captured in this way. For example, deep probing can help to elicit previously unstated reasoning that sits just beneath the surface, but if we continue to probe, respondents begin to over-rationalise, providing us with plausible answers which become somewhat contrived and are not reflective of actual decision making.

Far beneath the surface we make decisions based on unconscious factors that no amount of probing or projection can unearth (certainly not in the confines of a 60-minute interview). In order to access some of these unconscious beliefs, we need to move away from slow and considered responses and instead start to look at quick thinking. This is where online quantitative approaches currently have an edge.

Based on academic research into implicit associations, HRW has developed several superb online tools that access our fast thinking. Our Fast Association Testing approach allows us to gather more authentic emotional reactions to products, brands and services in a simple to administer format whereby respondents don’t have time to over-rationalise. The pressure of providing a quick response allows us to assess some of the more implicit beliefs that respondents have: plus, the test is quick, easy and fun, and therefore also increases respondent engagement.

The story doesn’t end here, because whilst we know that fast thinking is an important aspect of decision making, we also know that our rational brain continues to play a role in any decision. Utilising fast and slow techniques in combination allows us to look at both sides of the coin, and to discover how aligned our fast and rational thinking really are.

In addition, we have found that follow-up qualitative interviews after a quant survey (perhaps even using survey outputs as stimulus) allow us to more productively discuss these emotional opinions. Having the ability to share key findings from a quantitative survey helps respondents to provide a rationale for their emotional thinking, and indeed to recognise that these beliefs exist (factual data from a quantitative survey is difficult to disagree, with and so the discussion can quickly get to the core of the issue). This feedback loop additionally offers an intrinsic incentive of sorts, as participants are curious and gain insight into the views of their colleagues or peers alike.

Thinking differently and challenging traditional beliefs has therefore allowed us to better access emotional and rational thinking: and, critically, to discover how closely the two aspects align. Successful brands are those which have consonance between the emotional and rational, and so neither should be overlooked. Sometimes traditional approaches will be enough, but next time you need to access deeper-held beliefs, a ‘quant to qual’ approach that includes fast testing techniques may well take your thinking to another level.


by Nicola Vyas

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