Sleuthing For Insights

By Jaisy Desai

True detectives and qualitative researchers follow similar paths in their hunt for insights into crimes or behavioural clues. Very often when reading or watching detective novels or serials, I have felt that a qualitative researcher operates just like a detective. Whether it is logical deductions that Sherlock Holmes presents or the clear story telling of Agatha Christie – detectives and qualitative researchers share many characteristics – an eye for detail, inquisitiveness and perseverance combined with quirkiness passion as well as an ability to link cause and effect.

Detectives, in their attempt to get under the skin of the criminal, examine and follow clues relentlessly to see where they might lead and look for patterns which help them corroborate their hypotheses. Qualitative researchers follow a similar path, scouring for previously undetected clues or insights which reveal the true nature and motivations of consumers and elucidate why they make the decisions they do.

Perhaps, the most poignant observation of detectives is the excitement and thrill that they experience during the investigation. The hunt for clues becomes an all consuming passion which characterises their job and drives them forward until the truth is revealed.

In this article, we explore some of the similarities between criminal detectives and qualitative researchers that can be leveraged for educational purposes when training new recruits in the methods of qualitative research.

The immortal fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, specified four criteria which define effective detectives and which I believe hold true for expert qualitative researchers too:

  • The power of observation: looking for the elusive clues through the synchronicity or patterns in attitudes, behaviour and perception.
  • The power of deduction or identifying the context and character of the synchronicity.
  • The power gained from prior knowledge (of crimes and criminal personalities in the case of detectives, of consumer behaviour, psychology and socio-cultural understanding in the case of the researcher).
  • The power of constructive imagination (or the creativity that researchers bring to the anlaysis of the data to extract new meaning or insights).

So what is a qualitative researcher looking for when they use their powers of observation and deduction? Let me provide an example. During a recent exploration of the male wardrobe, we observed some interesting strategies in the way wardrobes were assembled amongst men with very different motivations towards grooming. The man whose primary purpose in life was his profession exhibited high preparedness, with clothes pre-selected for every day of the working week. His clothes were simple and sober but his wardrobe was prepared for the week ahead and designed to ensure he looked professional every day. Compare this with the man whose attitude towards grooming is driven by a need to stand out amongst his peers and colleagues. His outfits were funky and stylish very often hung in a wardrobe along his wife’s clothes! His clothes were highly varied and were segregated by work versus party wear. The party outfits, which were either colourful or very “bling”, ended up next to other colourful clothes. Simple observations such as these help us to understand people’s relationship with different fashion brands and their underlying motivations.

Qualitative researchers therefore hunt for patterns in respondents’ homes, their behaviour, attitudes, motivations, and hobbies etc. The better we understand respondents and their environment, including the products they use at home, the symbols/images that represent their motivations etc., the more likely it is that we will observe the synchronicity.  In this context, we use the term synchronicity to refer to a causal connecting principle. Whether in special or mundane circumstances, synchronicity presents itself in many ways. To understand how synchronicity manifests itself, let’s look at the three patterns in which it appears as we observe:

  • Could be a new idea or a single thought
  • Strings of synchronicities that drive home a point or add a new dimension
  • Synchronicity clusters, which point us towards the explanation of the behaviour or reactions in a more meaningful and deeper way, which could come from a person’s behaviour or motivation or attitudes or could come from observations across people’s behaviour or motivations.

The context in which we conduct qualitative research also shares some commonalities with crime scenarios, for example:

  • Investigation is triggered by disruptive scenarios: in the context of market research, these could take the form of a new communication, a brand extension, competitive strategies etc. all of which create disruptive situations for a brand and for consumers
  • Researchers, like detectives, are exposed to a rich and imaginative chemistry of people, contexts and socio-cultural backdrops: in research terms respondents, markets and userships vary widely
  • Detectives document social trends and bring to the fore values, beliefs and motives just as the researcher focuses carefully on the socio-cultural backdrop and their understanding of consumer psychology
  • In crime as with research, the skills of an expert are always appreciated: qualitative research is not only a specialist skill but a skill which grows with experience and exposure.

The hunt for insights is no less rigorous or exciting. Our strategies as qualitative researchers are very similar to that of detectives.

1. Contemplation of the problem or as Sherlock Holmes puts it “defining the mystery’ – requires us to formulate a proposal in such a way as to make explicit the processes that must be followed to uncover insights, for example:

    • To approach the problem with an open mind and minimise preconceived ideas or beliefs
    • To question the client’s need for the research
    • Discuss with others – colleagues, experts from other fields, consumers you know etc.
    • Ask the right questions: every question has an objective and in this case, it’s the requirement to answer the research objective.

2. Data gathering: Today data gathering is at an interesting stage, with the emergence of new media platforms including the internet, mobile apps, live consumer chats etc. It is truly an era for a ‘Bricolage approach’ with approaches from different disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, ethnography, psychology, semiotics, behavioural economics etc. To understand the story behind each mystery, it is important to read the narrative correctly to observe items around, and construct a narrative that explained what had likely happened in the past. It is important to get a holistic picture, to observe all the different elements involved that would help construct a complete narrative. See. Observe. Deduce.

3. Piecing together the jigsaw:

  • Analyzing the data, identifying patterns and building a picture of the synchronicity to develop the meaning/insight
  • Being conscious of red herrings that detract from the true meaning
  • Apply logic. Many detectives talk about instincts and having a ‘nose for a crime’. While potentially useful, in the end, convictions are made from factual evidence.

4. Reporting or delivery of insights

This is as important as the story telling of detectives. Like the detective novelists it is important to give the audience an equal opportunity to solve the mystery or understand the `path to insights’. In a detective novel suspense keeps the reader engaged, whereas in research it is the unraveling of the details and the revelation of the synchronicities that define consumers in different facets of life that keeps clients gribbed to their seats. And not to forget the antagonist in the story or the competition brands in the research scenario.

The list of parallels across these two disciplines are many but what is key to better ourselves as researchers is to imbibe the passion and excitement that typically characterises the detective. However tedious or mundane the process of data gathering might be, it is the researcher’s passion that always finds the answer as illustrated in the example below.

Researchers sometimes have to investigate some less exciting categories such as ‘used cars’. It involves understanding elaborate customer journey maps that take you through different steps such as finding the right dealer, talking to friends and family, searching the internet, checking actual vehicles with help of a mechanic, meeting with the owner, tracking car history etc. The list of things to do is a chore for the ‘used car’ customer but they still undergo them rather than purchase from an authorised car dealer.

Situations like this can leave a researcher baffled, providing no clues or explanation for the customer’s behaviour – why does the customer have to go through all those processes? But what we do not see is that for the customer, having to do the research is far less intimidating than having to approach an authorised car dealer about a second hand car. And while tangible fears may be expressed verbally, when a customer remains unaware of his own fears, they are intangible and not expressed. Fear towards a brand is unusual because in most cases the brand supports and enhances the customer. However, in the context of second hard cars, the sheer act of approaching an expert leaves customers reminded of their own inadequacies (or lack of knowledge). By delving deep into the data pertaining to the customer journey and examining closely the customer’s unconscious expression of his likes and dislikes, the researcher was able to uncover an unexpressed fear of an ‘entity’. This clue implies a different strategy for the marketer: to help them build a closer, more trusting and less intimidating relationship with the customer.

In summary, the key to being a good detective or an effective qualitative researcher is to have a keen eye for detail and strong logical skills. Sherlock Holmes was ruthless at observing, gathering and analyzing clues and making logical deductions from these. Nothing is useless until you decide it is. Whatever deductions Holmes made, he did it based on the evidence to hand. As Sherlock pointed out:

“It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment,” which is a complicated way of saying, “Don’t just guess. Investigate.”

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Author: Jaisy Desai
Date: 21 July 2017

About the Author

Jaisy Desai is an ACI Fellow at the Co-Founder of Tangram Research & Consultancy Pte. Ltd. She has more than 18 years of experience as a practitioner in Qualitative Research. She started thinking research during college and has stayed true to the discipline. She enjoys the creativity, curiosity and diversity that is so part of qualitative research.