Do we really reflect reality when we share traditional stimulus material in the market research setting? Jess Woodhead (Senior Research Manager) takes us through the future of dynamic stimulus design and what it can offer your business…

The challenge

How often do you think about how realistic the market research environment is?

Think about when we show stimulus (such as a patient profile) to a respondent in an interview – what are we aiming to achieve? Realistic answers that reflect real-world decisions, I hear you say! Well, at HRW we have taken a fresh look at market research stimulus and have found some striking results. Considering this, we asked ourselves: is it time to take a reality check?

Let’s take a step back for a minute and consider what we are dealing with…

When a doctor or nurse is in a consultation with a patient, they have limited time- but within that time, they are absorbing a lot of information and taking a lot into consideration about the person in front of them. This includes aspects about the patient such as their behaviour, tone of voice, emotion, level of engagement and motivation with the situation; but also those finer subconscious details such as judgements, stereotypes and biases (things we don’t even think about!).

When we talk to healthcare professionals in a market research setting, we strive to replicate this dynamic, and we would ideally like our respondents to provide us with answers that are as close to their real-world behaviour as possible. However, when we introduce a patient profile in market research, they are usually very factual and rational –in a typically ‘dry’ (or even boring!) format. The question is: to what extent does this kind of stimulus actually influence respondent’s reactions, and trigger the same thought process and decisions that they would make in clinical practice?

HRW’s Exploration into dynamic stimulus design and virtual reality

Technology is always moving forward, yet we are still presenting physicians with patient profiles on paper and asking them to put this into the context of their work in the real world. Thinking about what we have available to us, there are a number of ways that we can make stimulus more engaging, for example using multimedia, alternative framing, visuals or different formats. This is something that we do not always consider when it comes to creating market research stimulus: how does the way in which we present information influence the reactions we get in market research, and which of these gets us closest to the real world…?

To assess the potential of these alternative approaches to stimulus design, we designed a two-phase self-funded comparative study, to distil the role and impact that stimulus format really has in the research setting. We created a fictional hypertensive patient christened “Tony Jackson”, and presented him to physicians using four different types of stimulus format- each including the same content, with just the format differing each time:

  • A traditional paper profile
  • An infographic representing the information in a more visual way, using icons and pictures to illustrate the data
  • Augmented reality using an app called Layar, that allowed the respondent to scan the infographic using their mobile or an iPad to uncover pictures and audios
  • Virtual reality, immersing the user in a 360° virtual environment – in this case transporting them into the GP consultation room with the patient describing their situation

The first qualitative phase of our study looked at reactions to each of the different types of format, and explored level of engagement. The subsequent quantitative phase measured the level of impact and how the decisions that physicians took differed, if at all, after seeing different types of stimulus format.

What did we find?

Essentially, we found that stimulus format makes a real difference…

Initially, looking comparatively, we saw that even simple modifications to stimulus format helped to increase engagement; there was an improvement in body language during the interviews, and a difference in the depth of their reaction to the content. This highlighted to us that even simple, low/no-cost amends to stimulus format (such as an infographic) improved the extent to which physicians considered the patient and their needs when making decisions.

Secondly, we found that even a small change in stimulus format resulted in significant changes in prescribing behaviour – namely initiation of drug therapy – highlighting how important it is to consider the format of your stimulus carefully. With the virtual reality format, there was also a considerable increase in requests for additional information about the patient indicating a higher level of interest and engagement with the patient. From this we can infer that using a more realistic stimulus generates may lead the physician to think more deeply about next steps, and come to a decision that better reflects the reality of everyday practice. This brings us one step closer to gaining and delivering more accurate data in market research.

So what is the take-away from this? What should you consider when designing research stimulus?

There is certainly still a place for traditional, fact-based stimulus – especially where you are seeking rational, fact-based responses e.g. thinking “more product than patient”, or where you have a lot of data to share in limited time.

But infographics are becoming increasingly popular inside and outside of market research, and should be considered more often: as they are cheap and easy to make, plus lead to increased respondent engagement and more considered, interpretative responses.

Finally, virtual reality is a new and exciting option to immerse your respondents in a familiar, realistic environment. It helps to trigger those contextual cues that influence decision making, including emotions, biases and judgements – particularly valuable when you want to ”bring a patient to life” in your research.

The application and potential for using technology in market research is wide-ranging: the point to consider is what method is the best way to present the information you want to assess, considering the objectives, time and resource you have.

Based on this, I’d like to ask you to consider using different types of stimulus format in your next research project. Ask yourself: what best reflects your reality? Make sure that you select the format that allows you to access the reality you want to access.

To find out more about HRW’s approach to stimulus development, get in touch.


By Jess Woodhead

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