Awhile ago after moderating some groups here in Denver I suggested that traditional qual research facilities have become the tender trap of research, that they stifle good conversations, and that we as planners should be a voice for breaking the mold.
Earlier this week I had lunch with some friends who are researchers and we talked about what a new type of facility could be like. So as promised, here are some ideas for how we could make them better. Note here that I'm assuming the research facility will stay part of the researcher's toolbox. I personally prefer non-facility options (in-homes, etc.) but that's not what this post is about.
So here are some ideas for a new breed of facility.
Nearly every idea to improve the facility is aimed at removing the many things that make people feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, distracted, scrutinized and exposed. In other words, the kinds of things that stand between what people truly are thinking and feeling, and how easy they find it to have a conversation about it.
Marriage of Content and Context
Most planners try to have conversations with people as close to where they interact with the category as possible. Talking laundry detergent? Let's do a load of laundry. Books? How about a bookstore. Cars? Let's take a spin. Of course this is not always the most cost effective means of having conversations. But what if the facility of the future was modeled more from the soundstage concept. It could shape-shift its way to different contexts. A living room, a garage, a kitchen, a convenience store, and so on.
Given the fact that a lot of urban locations are recruited to death, it makes sense to go on the fringes of major urban areas to get more 'mainstream' consumers. This in turn allows for off the beaten path locations where it would be cheaper to buy the larger space needed to tinker with different contexts.
Neutrality is Not Neutral
Most facilities have beige or white walls, working under the assumption that neutral colors keep people from being distracted or biased. It operates under a scientific principle. But the best conversations happen in warmer, more inspiring places. That's why there is art on the walls in restaurants. So the new facility would embrace art and color.
Arrival and Acclimation
When respondents arrive, they would be immediately offered a drink. Only after they have been welcomed and given their drink are they asked to sign in. When they enter the conversation room there is a place for them to hang their coat or purse. This helps people feel they've arrived, they've checked their things at the door, rather than have their purse on their lap and their jacket on the chair the entire time. Taking it a bit further, they could be encouraged to leave their shoes at the door too. Given a nice set of slippers to wear during the conversation.
One of the signs of people feeling nervous among groups of strangers is that they don't know what to do with their hands. They fold them, tuck them, generally fidget. So in the conversation room there would be a basket full of 'fidget widgets'. All would be encouraged to pick something and fiddle with it as much as they wish. Tassles, rubber balls, trinkets, etc. Not cheesy colorful toys but low-key tactile objects.
The Role of Food
Usually respondents wait in a room nearly identical to the waiting room in a doctor's office. They nibble on chips and finger sandwiches. Why not serve comfort food instead of junk food. Lemonade, hot chocolate, soup, etc.
Taking the role of food one step further, why not have the entire group take place over a meal? The facility could have a room exactly like a private room in a restaurant. Like a place you'd go for the rehearsal dinner of a friend's wedding. People get to know each other over food. Remember Dinner for Five?
Respondents would be offered a variety of tools to better express themselves. Along a side wall would be computers where they could access images and websites to expand on their thoughts. One whole wall would be nothing but whiteboard. A separate area would be dedicated to crafts with a Color Me Mine feel.
The one-way mirror standard would have to be rethought. There would be three ways to approach observation. First, go stealth. Small cameras in strategic locations. Corners of the room. In a painting, Mona Lisa style. Imagine a chandelier above a dining table, outfitted with mics and cameras. Second, go with the one-way mirror but make it a showpiece. A creative and conspicuous frame above a table, serving more as a decorative mirror than an observation portal.
The key with these approaches is that they in themselves become talk pieces. The moderator can call out the James Bond-like chandelier, the strategically placed cameras. They become parodies of themselves to the extent that they disarm people.
Third, of course, is to break down the wall altogether. Observers sit in the room in the corner. A small lounge-like setting off to the side. A bit distracting at first but they will eventually be ignored. No laptops allowed, only notepads. Alternatively, we could take a cue from cooking schools that allow observers to watch the chef in action in a mirror in the ceiling.
Identity and Website
The facility would not be called ABC Research or anything like that. In fact it would never have the word research in the title. It could be called The Den or The Conversation Room or hey, even George's Place. Again, more like a lounge or bar and less researchy. Staff would be feel more customer service than telemarketing.
The facility would have a welcoming website with all the hallmarks of a company meant to gather groups of people who do interesting things. People could opt in to link their myspace, facebook, etc. profiles to the facility's database, allowing for first-pass digital screening. The site would also have bundled tools allowing for online collage, photo and video uploading, and other easy tools that facilitate pre-research homework.
People often think of their best ideas when they leave the conversation. I know as a planner I've heard from facilities many times that so-and-so respondent had contacted them to give one last thought, one remaining idea that occurred to them the following evening. To facilitate and encourage these epiphanies all respondents would be given a prepaid postcard to jot any ideas down and drop it in the mail. They could do this anonymously and creatively a la post secret.
For the research geeks in the back there could be text-recognition software built into the video recording so that a transcript is instantly made of the groups. Also, a timecode display would be visible for observers to mark when they heard a key quote. Editors in the back room would pull these clips on the fly and the observers would leave with a DVD of selected clips.
Again, taking a cue from a cooking school, elevated chairs around a large kitchen island could be one approach. This cues a collaborative environment of creation. Another arrangement for more personal topics could be a series of Fatboy adult beanbag chairs. These bring people into an adolescent comfort zone without being overly childish.
As a moderator I've experienced many times a group that starts to fizzle out exactly at the time when we're reaching the crux of the subject. Usually around 45 minutes into the conversation. It's no wonder. These people have been sitting at the same table with the same group of strangers for nearly an hour. Why not get up and move around? When you visit someone's house for dinner usually you hang out in one room for a drink and an appetizer then you mozy over to another place. How about the same thing here. The group could start in a lounge / living room then move to a kitchen or dining room environment.
That's all I've got.
A few facilities out there have put a contemporary topspin on the traditional approach. The Energy Annex, Pacific Research and Greenberg Studios come to mind. But so far I've not seen anything that has really broken the mold.
I'm curious to hear from other planners and researchers if you share the same angst as I do. Would these ideas help? Have you seen any facilities out there that are doing any of these things?