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RESEARCH IN 2020: Reinventing Conversation To Open Up Consumers



Marcy Barson, author

In early 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions multiplied, many consumer strategists questioned continuing their qualitative research. Reasonably, they feared that input from stressed, distracted consumers would be skewed by their virus-related tensions. But smart questions drive innovation, so we decided to ask a big one: Why try to overcome the limits of traditional practices when we can design new ones? By exploring what’s uniquely possible now, we’re breaking unexpected new ground — and yielding some of the deepest insights we’ve seen.

With empathy, we first approached our client partners in March and April about wading into the unknown with us and testing new ways to host conversations about new and existing products. Over the next four months, we then engaged over 1,500 consumers. Virtually. And fruitfully. In fact, our partners told us our results even surpassed what they used to gain from in-person qual.

We’re still talking to consumers, more than ever, and continuing to find more productive learning touchpoints. How? Like the best in-person interviewers, we learned to read the (virtual) room. Unconstrained by the past, we freed ourselves to design new methods that work in our current world.

New Access, Productive Effects

We gained momentum by building on core truths and staying fearlessly curious, refusing to give up on qual. We considered people, technology, our questions, and how they could all interact productively. Our experience led us to the following four discoveries:

1. At this point, everyone’s fine sharing everything online.
Virtual communication has become reality, as COVID-19 spurred consumers to make the most of online tools to communicate with family, work and friends. Our subjects were happy to engage freely as long as the moderator succeeded in forging an emotional connection from the start. They could even stay relaxed knowing anonymous observers were present.

We challenged what this new comfort level could mean for consumers’ ability to focus on complex content — with impressive results. A laundry partner asked us to identify optimal parameters (sensory experience and design) for a new product. Rather than hypothesize traditional benefits and ask for feedback, we took consumers on a product co-creation journey using an interactive PowerPoint file. We dove into an extraordinarily wide range of product and pack options, inviting participants to reveal what benefits would be meaningful. Digital moderation became an asset. It yielded deeper, even more human-centric insights.

Hearing consumers explain their needs helped our partners internalize the learnings, which have since been shared up to leadership with conviction. The product is set for a 2021 launch.

“This project was not just about our thoughts and expertise, but our hearts,” our client partner told us. “You can feel the team’s engagement.”

2. Physically and emotionally, everyone you’ve ever wanted to talk to is available.
Thanks to COVID-19, consumers across socio-economic groups can be found at home, their schedules far more open without commutes and other outings. They’re also uniquely exposed when we view them on screen — their real lives on display. Combined, these factors add up to highly valuable subjects and insights. We can speak to people we once couldn’t, and it’s harder for them to tell us tales.

Traditionally, we’d consider someone interrupting an interview to be a nuisance. But we chose to recognize each family member caught on camera, wandering in the background or trying to get Mom or Dad’s attention, as a resource. Family realities contributed context and only added to the authenticity of our conversations. They offered a new dimension through which to view and interpret subjects’ responses.

We even started to take advantage of families being home together by engaging children (with parents present) as well as adults. Capturing parent-child dynamics helped us identify new avenues for innovation.

“We’ve never talked to the kids before,” one partner reported. “I’m really excited — this is something really different for us.”

3. Consumers are beyond happy to engage the outside world any way they can.
Not only are articulate, expressive consumers comfortable and available, they’re eager for new experiences. Taking part in research is no longer inconvenient, and engaging any other topic feels like a welcome escape from “COVID World.”

For a recent online study, we decided to harness the comfortable familiarity of nostalgia and reassuring thoughts of “more normal” times to prepare our consumers for engagement. We asked subjects to video themselves sharing a memory of using a particular outdoor product. They had specific instructions to reference all five senses, taking us (and themselves) back to that moment.

This full-sensory trip back in time relaxed our subjects, and their refreshed, positive emotional state persisted through the study. They shared genuine insights we could never have gained in a traditional setting, ultimately inspiring our client partner to take audacious steps away from category norms.

“Those consumer quotes are going to help give senior leadership the courage to evolve our brand, and in some uncomfortable ways,” our partner shared. “But it’s what the consumer wants — and is asking for.”

4. New virtual methods can get even better results than in-person qual did.
For all the advantages of engaging with subjects face to face, the practice has limitations. Commitments to real estate create arbitrary time constraints. And for the most part, once participants complete their interviews, they’re gone.

We pushed beyond these boundaries with a partner who engaged us to explore sustainability marketing and a robust “Moments that Matter” strategy. Over two months, we engaged mothers of young children in two online studies, each taking place over the course of several days. With time and space to spread out, we designed activities that required particularly thoughtful engagement.

We asked these consumers to tap deeply into their values, considering not just their priorities as individuals but as mothers — protectors and nurturers of their children. We gave them time to internalize these conversations and formulate responses. They rewarded us by opening up fully, their emotional vulnerability surpassing what we’d expect to develop live. It’s likely the pandemic only enhanced their introspection.

Fully engaged, these subjects demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to helping us learn about how products (even entire categories) could assist them in living their values — as people and parents. For our partner, eager to support these women and grow with them, it was a win-win moment that mattered a great deal.

“I’m so glad you pushed us to do this,” our client partner told us. “We thought we were going to have to pause this project, but instead we got even richer insights than we ever imagined we could.”

Ensuring Ongoing Success

We now plan to build on our early successes with virtual qual. But they didn’t come easily. We and our partners had to agree to learn in new and unfamiliar ways. Just as importantly, we had to upend assumptions about qual to redesign it in real time.

For those ready to try their own new methods, we offer these three recommendations:

1. Acknowledge This Moment

These are unusual times, and stating so upfront puts subjects at ease. Allow people to share what has changed for them during COVID-19 and how they feel. Lean into bonding, as discussing fears can establish priceless intimacy.

2. Learn & Practice Agility

We often needed to adopt new technologies to pursue insights. So conduct research in the spirit of experimentation and embrace navigating across platforms. Focus on the exciting potential in new approaches, track emerging tools, and stay agile.

3. Prepare, Prepare & Prepare

Expecting the unexpected is a must. Build additional time into the interview segment to allow for technical problems, family distractions, even the occasional emergency home repair. It’s all likely to happen. Plan for it.

The Search for Better Understanding

Throughout our journey, we’ve been asked how consumers’ perceptions will be affected by COVID-19 moving forward. So much remains uncertain. But our 2020 research makes one thing clear: it’s more important than ever to stay close to them.

Consumers won’t stop adapting and growing, and as their lives change, so will their mindsets and perspectives. Companies can only respond if they know what newly motivates and captures a consumer’s need. And consumers can only share if we ask — in ways that connect. In light of the complex consumer transformations to come, shouldn’t we demand that qual emerge better than ever before, pandemic or no pandemic, online or off?

Proudly, we see and know that it can.


IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS is an article series from Bluedog launched to engage the many challenges and emerging opportunities facing the business leaders of today and tomorrow.

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