The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates left no writings of his own, so we rely today on writings by several of his students to understand and appreciate his contributions to philosophy and the modern world. Without a doubt his greatest contribution is the Socratic Method, an approach aimed at uncovering truth through a series of iterative questions. For movie buffs and/or older readers with great memories, this approach was dramatically (some would call it over the top!) demonstrated by the late actor, John Houseman, in his Oscar-winning portrayal of law school professor Kingsfield. In this case, his character committed academic torture of students through intimidation and imposition of potentially life-changing consequences; obviously researchers today seek to engage participants by making the process enjoyable and rewarding.
Researchers should give credit to Socrates for providing iterative qualitative research’s foundation – the concept of attaining truth or enlightenment by building on and improving ideas through a series of questions and conversations.
At SpencerHall, we’re huge fans of iterative qualitative research, because it offers a number of powerful benefits. It also uses technology to enhance the respondents’ experience, interacting with us in what we call “thinking partnerships.” Here are the most important benefits we see:
- Dynamic improvement – Whether the participants are target consumers, B2B prospects and customers, or a vested internal project team, researchers have the ability to modify the stimuli on the fly based on the initial response from subjects. Whether it’s the usability of an app or the description of a snack food, initial insights, opinions, ideas and suggestions of participants can affect what they see and hear next. Given this, the next iteration participants see will be based on their input. This makes the research process a two-way conversation rather than a typically unengaging ask/answer approach.
- Speed – Because the work is dynamic and each iteration can follow the previous round by hours or days, time to completion can be accelerated dramatically. And by using technology, respondents can participate from home or wherever their work or lives require them to be. This makes bringing a target group together significantly less challenging, which also contributes to speed to completion.
- Flexibility – Through the use of technology, we’re able to work dynamically without physically pulling people together. Not only does this increase speed and flexibility, but it potentially reduces costs as well. Our Sounding Boards tool allows us to engage consumers over a short series of iterations, where they respond privately first, before being encouraged to build upon others’ responses after seeing them. This means everyone has a voice on his or her own terms.
For business groups, our Transforum innovation tool allows teams and subject matter experts to connect virtually, eliminating the need for travel and many of the scheduling and logistics challenges of a traditional offsite event. This improves the level of authentic thought and insights shared, because participants aren’t swayed by other group members and are encouraged to respond at a time that best fits into his/her schedule.
- Team ownership – While this isn't a factor with consumer research, corporate teams that are developing new products, services or business model innovation while working within an iterative framework will witness the output of collaboration in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. The most likely outcome is a team that feels bound by the experience of working together to build something of value and has a sense of ownership and commitment that improves the odds of success.
As research professionals, it’s gratifying to see that much of what we do is based on a pioneering rhetorical approach to learning that was first popularized over 2000 years ago. It’s even more gratifying to see how we’re able to continue to improve on those methods through the thoughtful use of technology and a deep appreciation for constantly evolving patterns in human behavior.