Why and how to use stimulus material in qualitative research

What’s the best way to use stimulus material in qualitative research?

Qualitative researchers can use a broad range of stimulus material to get much more out of the discussion or interview than simply asking questions.

What is stimulus material?

By stimulus material we mean things like:

  • Any kind of printed or visual material like concept boards, packs , photos or videos and mood boards
  • Sensory material, such as something to touch , smell or taste -and audio too though that seems to be pretty rare.

Our advice is to have as many of these in your research toolkit as you possibly can.

The stimulus material should be closely related to the thread of the discussion and should be at the core of what participants are talking about, rather than an unrelated or occasional fun activity designed solely for engagement or involvement.

The benefits of stimulus material

Here are four great reasons for using stimulus material:

1. It can make something ‘sayable’

Part of the dynamic of all personal conversation is the tension that can sometimes arise about what is ‘sayable’ in this environment – as in a joke that is ‘too soon?’  Again, food is a good example. In face to face groups, the people present are often of varying sizes and shapes, so some participants will steer clear of saying things likely to offend others. A concept board about ‘people who struggle with their weight’ (for example) can open up a conversation that might have been suppressed out of politeness.  In an online discussion too when participants cannot see each other, participants may be wary about making some kind of personal confession.  A visual works like a third person projective in that context.

2. It can bring emotion into the discussion

Everyone likes to present themselves in a good light to other people, so for some topics people will try to present themselves as rational decision-makers, when of course we know that emotions contribute a significant amount. Actually, humour is one of the best ways to break through that superficial rationality. This can be achieved by relevant but light-hearted stimulus material.

3. It can remind

Having products and packs on the screen or table can remind participants of products or brands they had forgotten – an ‘oh yes, I tried that one too once’.

4. It can stimulate!

Some face to face groups require participants to sit around a table for 2 hours with compete strangers, waiting for their turn to talk. They are not stimulated – their body language is stiff and their face impassive – and when people are not stimulated and engaged in a discussion, they do not give their best. You want them leaning forward, using facial expression, laughter and gesture to make their point. If that is what you want, give participants something to do – even if it is just a (relevant) photo sort.  The same applies online.  Send your online participants on a virtual treasure hunt, to find the best photo or website that captures the concept you are discussing for example, rather than just expecting them to type.

Contact Sue to find out how qualitative research can help you.

Susan Bell Founder & Lead Consultant
Sue Bell, Founder & Lead Consultant

We would love to hear from you, and are always happy to talk through research methods and options with you, if you are not sure what you need. Why not get in touch for a free, obligation-free, and confidential conversation.

Find out more about Susan Bell Research.

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