Cooking without a Recipe: How to Create Your Own Projectives

By Susan G. Abbott, Chief Insights Officer, ARC Strategy, Toronto, Canada, susan@abbottresearch.com

When I first learned to cook, I stuck closely to straightforward recipes and those handed down from my mother. Over time, I learned how to recover from minor disasters, how to add seasonings and substitute ingredients, and generally advanced my skills. Now, I enjoy cobbling together a meal from whatever is on hand, the improv of the cooking world. When an experienced cook looks at a recipe, they often are seeking fresh ideas for ingredients and combinations, not a set of rigid instructions.

Qualitative research consultants (QRCs) develop their skills in similar ways. The less experienced researcher relies on trusted resources learned in moderator training. You pick up new methods from conferences and webinars and begin tweaking to fit project needs. Throughout this article, I’ll share both what I have developed, as well as approaches learned from colleagues. Eventually, you may decide it’s time to build your own activities.

It’s Still a Pizza

We do not invent activities entirely from scratch any more than a cook invents entirely new dishes. There are endless variations on pizza, but it is still recognizably pizza, even with a cauliflower crust and vegan cheese. We use our knowledge of people and cultures to bring new ingredients to old methods and old ingredients to new methods.

What QRCs call projective techniques are different from clinical psychology, although that is the origin. Common techniques involve word or imagery associations, ambiguous stimuli, forced connections, and personification.

Gamification is not a projective technique, but can also be a powerful methodology to use with research activities. Good games are fun and intuitive, and get people interacting spontaneously.

Five Reasons to Build Your Own Tools

Sometimes we have to change our tools to do a good job, but there are also reputational benefits for you of having custom projectives, in order to:

  • Respond to the environment,
  • Fit the needs of the research project,
  • Simplify an activity to make it easier, faster, or more effective,
  • Obtain more authentic discussions,
  • Show clients that you offer them unique value.

Respond to the Environment: It’s a Big World, and Things Change

I had to change my approach to collage when I realized people were doing Google image searches to generate them, giving me insight into Google’s zeitgeist, but no insight into the participants or the project.

Providing your own images has some other benefits. Consider the possibilities of using images all from one domain or across many domains. For example, I have a page of only animals ranging from sleeping dogs to roaring gorillas and scared mice that works well in many contexts. I have used transportation and communication images (donkey cart to high-speed rail) as a metaphor for business technology. I also collect metaphorical images, like a frog with butterfly wings and fraying rope.

Responding to the culture you are in is crucially important. Pia Mollbeck, who draws on  decades of experience conducting qualitative research in India and graciously shares her insights at conferences like ESOMAR, says that image decks she had used successfully in the U.S. (e.g. dog breeds, chairs) did not work in India.

“Even the chair deck was a disaster,” she says, because people did not have these objects and brands in their lives. Global movie stars worked better, but not as well as Bollywood actors, celebrities, and characters from old Indian movies. Now she has a custom image deck of Hindu gods and goddesses.

“Virtually every Indian shares reference to the characteristics of these deities’ personality traits, roles in epic narratives, and specific acts they are known for. People instinctively made amazing connections between X God and Y Brand/product/service,” says Mollbeck. “Better than any other deck I have ever worked with.”

Buying royalty-free images and building your own image library will give you many options and be useful for report writing.

Pre-made image decks can be useful as well. Veronique Gaboriau, a senior-level researcher based in Paris, France, used Carolyn Myss archetype cards for a project about femininity, asking the women to choose a card that was close to her self-perception.

“Of course, I chose the ones related to women,” says Gaboriau. “Each archetype shows a positive and negative side,” providing a rich source of discussion.

Ilka Kuhagen, based in Munich, Germany, uses a deck of flowers from Dr. Bach homeopathic remedies.

“Each flower stands for a state of mind and emotions. It worked really well with the women for a fashion project,” she said.

Fresh Tools for Tricky Challenges

Every researcher has challenges that need clever design solutions. One of mine has been commissioned salespeople.

I had tried brand-sorting activities but felt I was not getting real engagement or deep enough insights. The participants kept looking for clues as to what I wanted—something good salespeople do all the time, but it wasn’t helping my objectives. I also knew this group to be lively and competitive.

I designed a very simple game based on Survivor, the television show. With each round, participants had to vote one brand off their sales floor. Discussion was lively with each round of voting as individuals made the case based on multiple brand dimensions.

Games from reality shows are a potentially rich source of ideas. I have also created a simplified Apprentice game for use with university students.

Simplify and Customize Activities

A potent tool for innovation or co-creation sessions is Product Box, as described in Innovation Games, by Luke Hohmann. Participants receive a blank white box that they decorate to describe a future product. I have tweaked this recipe in various ways to simplify it or customize it for specific projects.

Instead of a box, you can use a plain manila folder. This worked well to create the travel brochure for an ideal vacation, that had everything except the destination.

Product Box was my inspiration for a different brochure-creation activity. I provided a blank brochure created from the client’s standard format, with no words or images, and asked participants to fill it in. The show-and-tell triggered helpful discussions about features and benefits, as seen through the eyes of participants.

Getting to Authentic Discussion Faster

Rebecca Bryant, a senior-level researcher based in the United States who grew up on several different continents, led a self-funded project with other QRCs to explore using food as a projective, the results of which were presented at the Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research in Vienna. The team demonstrated that food worked cross-culturally among U.S., Norwegian, and German participants. As a metaphor, food has two significant advantages: all human beings have experience with eating and there are plenty of emotional associations to draw on.

I thought this food approach could work well with investment management. Managing investments is not just highly personal, it’s a topic on which most people want to look responsible, even if they feel clueless. To get over that hurdle quickly, to get people laughing and at ease, they were invited to describe their approach to money management as a food during introductions. One said their approach was like a plate of spaghetti, all over the place, confusing, and with no real structure. Another said their approach was like vegetable soup, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Easy but compelling metaphors, and no posturing. We were right into the topic in the first five minutes.

Show Clients You Offer Them Unique Value

Having your own tools can help your business. Tools you customize for the categories you work in most are likely to yield better insights. But unique methods are bound to be more memorable.

I find myself skeptical of claims by other researchers of “proprietary methods,” because they are generally just a twist on familiar methods. But, this is still effective marketing, and we are marketers, after all.

Tips for Creating New Tools

1) Look for metaphors, analogous situations, and sources of convenient stereotypes

Think about the research objectives and the issues you want to go deep on in the project. Are there any natural metaphors that might aid you in customizing a projective activity?

Movie actors and characters can be a rich vein to mine, because there are a variety of stereotypes readily available, such as rising stars, fading stars, serious players, superheroes, and aliens.

Animals also have stereotypes: In some cultures, owls are wise, foxes are clever, snakes are untrustworthy, and dogs are loyal.

2) Repurpose convenient tools

A clever researcher once grabbed a bunch of color sample chips from a paint store and created an activity now much loved. As explained by Abby Leafe, based in the United States, they can be used to describe feelings and moods: “Which color best captures the feeling of shopping for a new car? I might say bright yellow, because it’s a fun experience and yellow is a happy color. Or one might say, I choose this awful shade of green because car shopping makes me nauseous.”

Ilka Kuhagen uses a set of twenty-four colored pencils to help participants communicate emotions in simple drawing activities.

Game pieces like poker chips can be used when you want people to choose options, or let them combine resources to “buy” features.

On one (desperate) occasion, I asked participants to find a natural object outdoors on their lunch break from a daylong innovation session. Sticks, leaves, and rocks became the stimulus for a forced connections activity. For example, we might describe a leaf as flat, soft, green, growing, and temporary. We then try to apply each of these words to our concept development challenge.

Simple, playful, and ordinary things can be effectively utilized as research and ideation tools. It’s like making a meal from what you can find on hand in the pantry.

3) Consider the target you are studying

Be sure participants will readily understand the references you are relying on. Pop culture references can be useful, but can also be limiting for some demographics, and may not cross cultures. You also need to be sure you understand what participants are saying. Regardless of how clear you think the connections are in projectives, it is important to let the participants define meaning. A picture of a pot boiling over can mean anger, but it can also just mean cooking.

When you do make a new projective recipe, don’t forget to share it with your fellow QRCs in an article, workshop, or round table!

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