The best ways to use stimulus material

What's the best way to use stimulus material in qual?

Qualitative researchers can use a broad range of stimulus material to get much more out of the discussion.

In fact, we would even go so far as to say that the best focus groups (bulletin board and face to face) use stimulus material as the foundation of the discussion. 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.

What is stimulus material?

By stimulus material we mean things like:

•    Concept boards
•    Packs 
•    Products
•    Photos or videos
•    Mood boards
•    Any kind of printed or visual material shared with the group
•    Sensory material, such as tasting or tactile prompts
•    And audio too - though that seems to be pretty rare.

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

The benefits of stimulus material

Here are six great reasons for using stimulus material:

1.       Shared stimulus material becomes a focal point for the discussion. Having an image or images on the whiteboard, screen, or artifacts on the table gives participants a focal point, a visual way of saying 'we are talking about this'.  Participants are less likely, under those circumstances, to digress into some long personal story, which we have probably all seen happen in face to face groups when there is no 'centre' to the discussion.

2.       Everyone talks about the same thing. Let's say you want to talk about healthy food. The word 'healthy' means different things to different people, so different people can interpret the word 'healthy' in their own way.  Instead, show visuals of different types of food, and let the group work together on what their shared meaning of 'healthy' is.

3.       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. The consumers present in face to face groups 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 a bulletin board group too when participants cannot see each other, consumers  may be wary about making some kind of personal confession.  A visual works like a third person projective in that context.

4.       In a similar way, 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 lighthearted stimulus material.

5.       It can remind.  Having products and packs on the table or in a visual can remind participants of products or brands they had forgotten - an 'oh yes, I tried that one too once'.

6.       Finally, it can - you guessed it - stimulate! Some focus groups require consumers 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.  Why not send your bulletin board 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?

Better than neuroscience

Have you heard some people say that they need to use neuroscience in research because consumers do not say what they are really thinking in focus groups? Well, perhaps the research designer failed to create enough stimulus material for consumers to talk about? A failure of imagination on their part perhaps?

 Sue and Suzanne 

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Tags: Qualitative Research , Stimulus

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