Skip to content
All posts

Instituting Silliness. How 'play' in qual research unlocks the whole human

This piece was featured on Research Live.

Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” So why is most research today devoid of play? Where has creativity gone in qual research and what are the stakes of this loss? How can we offer respondents the opportunity to engage their whole, silly selves in our studies?

While we expect it in quant, we’re now increasingly seeing qual research shifting to extractive, monotonous methodologies that risk boring respondents in the quest for expediency and which treat respondents as sites of mining data. But injecting “play” into qual research need not be time-consuming and overly complicated. When we ask our respondents to “close your eyes and imagine…” they are catapulted in an instant into a creative state. Their minds and hearts come alive and they return for just a few moments to a child-like state of wonder and awe. 

Children, of course, have the unbridled capacity to create expansive imaginary worlds, meaningful imaginary friendships, and a joyful experience of the world where they don’t even notice their own vulnerability. This imaginative capacity comes with no effort; it’s a natural state. Children have not yet learned to check themselves, to be self-conscious about their desires, or to be worried about the mundane, often deadening realities of life as an adult.    

The loss of play is one of the tragedies of growing up, and it’s one of the tragedies of the state of qual research today. We conform to norms of seriousness and practicality, bogged down by the worries and challenges of making a living, finding a partner, taking care of those who are dependent on us, and finding meaning as we navigate how to bring joy and love into our lives. Becoming an adult too often means misplacing the creativity and imagination that allow us to dream our wildest dreams, unconstrained by the chains of practicality. In adulthood, our lives can be overtaken by shoulds rather than coulds.  

But as adults, we yearn for a life defined by “coulds” – a life ignited by possibility, hope, and vulnerability. There is no judgment in this kind of life. There is no one to please. We embrace silliness and let ourselves go. Our psyches at our very core breathe a sigh of relief. We giggle. We whoop with joy at a new discovery. We let ourselves feel deeply both the loss and recovery of the best aspects of who we were as children. When we feel like no one is watching or expecting something from us, we can be our whole human selves. 

We find that questions in qual research that invite respondents to play are met with passion, emotional depth, and even gratitude at recovering a tiny bit of what they’ve lost. We access the kind of vulnerability that only comes from being silly, from truly having fun. This is where the most authentic responses emerge. Invited into a state of imagination, truth is uncovered organically and without second-guessing or perhaps without respondents even being aware of those kernels of truth and how they can be transformed into insights. It is in this child-like state of playfulness that respondents have no trouble cutting straight to expressing their most authentic selves. It takes little effort, struggle, or resistance to get to this place. So, in fact, play may be the more direct and expedient way to reveal truths of human experience. 

There are lots of ways to engage in creative play with question creation. Here are a few examples we’ve used for how to engage respondents in play to excavate richer, more imaginative responses: 

Create the perfect soundtrack… Ask respondents to imagine they’ve been asked to soundtrack a brand, concept, or experience, choosing a song that perfectly captures the feeling they get from that thing. Get them to talk about the genre, the lyrics, the artist themselves, the vibe the song gives off, and the associations they have with that song. Music is deeply emotional and creative at its core, and it accesses feelings we may not even know we have because it gets us to think outside the box of mere words and images. Music becomes play. Getting respondents to think not only about the perfect song but also to reflect on why they chose that song accesses a deeper expression of emotion and meaning. 

Draw me a treasure map… Perfect for consumer journey research, ask respondents to recall the creativity of going on a treasure hunt. Ask them to think about their journey finding a product (i.e., treasure) they love, from having the initial idea that they want or need something all the way through to using or consuming that thing. Encourage non-linear thinking and ask them to note the challenges, friction, and rewarding “ah-ha” moments in the journey. Have them map the emotional moments on the map, the practical challenges to overcome, and ask them to narrate why they’ve drawn the map the way they have. In this approach, they’re more than just consumers; they’re intrepid hunters for treasures and this enlivens the process with play.   

Eulogize your favorite brand/product… As a creative twist on the deprivation study, tell respondents that a product or brand has died – it’s the last one on earth – and they are responsible for finding the words to memorialize that loss. Ask them to go deep in their imagination to write the perfect eulogy to describe not only the functional loss of that thing but also the emotional one. Here, you get at what that brand or product meant to them and they share what their lives will be like without it. Ask them to talk about all of the product or brand’s virtues as well as what the world will be like now that it’s gone. Imagining this scenario is world-making work, and world-making is at the heart of play. 

Pretend you’re in a debate with yourself… Present respondents with a topic for debate and ask them to “play” both sides. This lends itself well to an especially creative video question, where they jump back and forth arguing with themselves to present all of the nuances of each perspective. It could be about a concept, a brand, a product, or a category. Suddenly there is no self-consciousness. Their job is to present a convincing case for each side, intensifying the stakes and nuance in the debate. It both takes them out of themselves, freeing them from having to take a side, and helps them access more reflective and creative energies in imagining (and arguing for) the points they might not normally consider.  

How can you imagine “play” in qual research? What kinds of questions can return respondents to a child-like state of possibility, passion, and meaning?