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The hero’s journey: Celebrating friction in consumer research

This piece was featured on Greenbook

“In the universe of atoms, friction is the norm, not the exception. It's this very opposition, this challenge, that ignites the spark of innovation.” H.S. Crow

Technology is obsessed with removing friction. It seeks to create effortless engagement with everyday functions as well as the things that we consume – even the ways we think. Market research also agonizes over where friction exists in the process of consumption so as to eliminate it. And this can extend into the research process as well, where through fear of dropoff and low engagement respondents are shepherded hurriedly through a line of questioning that eliminates moments of pause and deeper self-reflection. Consider, by contrast, how we might celebrate friction and identify where it might in fact be desirable in qual research. 

The hero’s journey is one of moving through and overcoming hardship, crisis, and struggle. In the end, the hero emerges victorious, transformed. Friction creates an element of struggle, not in a way that frustrates and discourages, but in a way that ignites passion, inner turmoil, and growth. We have demonstrated that qual research can capture this kind of journey in the way studies are designed – using friction to enroll respondents in sparking creativity and evolution. 

Questions that ask respondents to pause and even struggle through both thinking and answering yield far richer answers than those that promote ease. To work through the complexity of at-times-contradictory feelings can replicate this journey of struggle and victory. Those “ah ha” moments as respondents get to the core of their feelings elicit a deep sense of satisfaction in the participant - not just the client - and provide more energy for the other questions, reducing burnout. Respondents, as a result, experience pride in their journey of responding. Pride leads to fulfillment. And fulfillment leads to more meaningful answers.

The best qual research attends to these places where friction “ignites the spark of innovation” and,as such, participants should be treated as the originators of this spark. It requires both guiding and probing but also allowing respondents to lead us in unexpected directions. In essence, inviting us on their journey as fellow travelers where our role is simultaneously both guide and follower. 

What does this look like in practice? How do we celebrate friction in the qual research process and respect the opportunity for the respondent’s journey to be one of personal evolution?

We have a few suggestions: 

Ask more complex questions. Many surveys, including qual surveys, ask short, simple questions in service to expediency and out of fear that respondents will lose interest. We find the opposite. Creating multiple sub-questions within each question or engaging in exercises in creative play offers respondents different entry points into what you ultimately want to know. Asking a question in multiple ways or in different media formats generates resonance for respondents depending on their associations with certain words or how a particular line of questioning triggers productive thoughts from their own experiences. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, to layer questions on questions, to get specific in your asks, and to nudge respondents to think more deeply than their first association. Longer questions also model a behavior for respondents, who will be more likely to give longer answers. 

Offer time to think. Invite respondents to pause and take their time in thinking and responding. This doesn’t need to interfere with the efficiency or the overall speed of a research project. What it does mean is that the process of asking questions, the thought put into their crafting, and the openings you create as a researcher for participants should cause them to pause, to consider, to take a moment from a busy day, and reflect. Asking them to close their eyes or imagine scenarios out of the one they’re in builds natural speedbumps into the process and allows ‘system one’ to take over from ‘system two’ thinking. Participants invariably appreciate the invitation. And it’s in this extra time that the best responses will emerge.

Honor people’s intelligence. People are experts on their own lives and they should be treated as such. People want us as researchers to understand that they are smart, thinking, feeling beings with wisdom to share, not mindless ‘consumers’ or ‘users’ who require an oversimplification in trying to understand their processes of consumption. Asking surface-level questions encourages surface-level answers. Most people respond well to deep, existential questions, if given the opportunity to consider them. There’s incredible intelligence out there and we won’t know it if we don’t trust our respondents and ask the hard, intelligent questions.  

Encourage self-reflexivity. Consumers are increasingly yearning for meaning and they are hungry for the opportunity for self-reflection. People are also often the best analysts of themselves since they know better than anyone else what experiences in their lives have shaped their current beliefs, desires, and needs. Questions should prompt people to answer the “why” and then to consider “why the why,” narrating a fuller picture of who they are and how they relate to the questions you’ve asked. You can even ask them to assume the role of their own therapist or best friend to force a sense of perspective. This is where people become heroes of their own journeys. It’s where growth happens, meaning is made, and an unparalleled level of depth and nuance in responses is accessed.