Breaking the Fourth Wall of Qualitative Research

by Zach Mullen

Invite them in.

In the qualitative world, we are continually looking to extract meaning and applicability from sets of disparate experiences. How do different perspectives come together to influence and tell a singular story? How can one person’s experience be a microcosm for something that afflicts an entire set of customers?

As we try to make sense of business questions and consumer behavior in a qualitative sense, we can utilize a set of tools that extends beyond just those tailored for market research specifically. Often, common literary devices can be a key to interpreting and analyzing swaths of qualitative information: themes, archetypes and juxtaposition.

While at first glance, many of these can be perceived as only having applicability in the world of art and literature, they have become more and more present in the world of market research. Some of those overlapping examples can look like:

ANALYSIS. Anyone who’s studied classical literature or art history will tell you that the name of the game isn’t seeing things for what they are, it’s digging deeper and extracting the insight. It’s using analyses to understand a particular motivation or reason for action – all of which are hallmarks of the market research industry.

SIGNIFICANCE. How do we make sense of where something sits in the culture? In art and literature, it’s assessing how the creative work fits (if at all) into a particular moment in time. In research, it’s assessing white space and opportunity. Whether the “thing” is an oil painting or a packaged good, it’s asking ourselves what does this particular thing mean in the broader context? How is it significant? Does it stand out? And if so, why? In research, we ask ourselves these questions every day.

BEST PRACTICES. In every industry, there are established best practices that set parameters on what can and can’t be done. Grammar rules guide the writer. Length of interview and scales guide the researcher. In every industry, just as in art and science, there are rules – whether written or unwritten – that help define the space and keep the majority of participants operating inside the walls.

Break the rules.

But what about the notion of breaking those walls? That’s a practice from the art and literature world that is far more extensively explored and accepted than it is in the research world. Artists are given permission to break the rules. Researchers refrain. So what would it look like if that weren’t always the case?

If you’ve studied art history in any detail, you may be familiar with the background of Pablo Picasso.

In short, Picasso wasn’t always Picasso. He was not painting distorted, cubist works fresh out of primary school. Instead, it was the opposite. Prior to his cubism period later in life – for which he is most famous – Picasso mastered the basics. He was a talented and accomplished artist in the classical sense. He learned the rules and excelled at them. If you held up some of Picasso’s early works, the layperson would likely have a hard time distinguishing any of his oil paintings of portraits and landscapes and mothers and children from any other run-of-the-mill artist at the time.

That’s not a bad thing.

Picasso spent years honing his craft and learning the foundation of what makes art art. His eventual mastery of that very fact gave him the credibility (and freedom) to ultimately explore something a little more non-traditional. One of Picasso’s famous quotes is, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” And that “break” is where his brilliance was most impactful.

In research, we love to create our walls.

There are rules that we as the research team are taught to keep hidden from the respondent. We lurk behind two-way mirrors in dark backrooms. We join and observe Zoom interviews anonymously – double-checking our camera is off and our Zoom name is set to “observer” just in case a respondent may somehow know we’re there. We monitor our quant surveys quietly online, checking stats via online dashboards – being careful never to disrupt any respondent experience.

When positioned like this, these “rules” sound questionable at best. But we’re not being deceitful. These guardrails all ladder up to the broader set of research best practices. Perhaps more so than in most other industries, everything we do in market research is done in the name of unbiased, good research. But in the name of that good research, we’ve constructed barriers upon barriers to keep us separated from the very people we want to learn from, ideate with and ultimately serve.

In literature, TV, movies, etc., the fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imaginary wall separates characters from the audience. While the audience can see through this wall, the convention assumes that the characters cannot.

In research, we always want “research that doesn’t feel like research.” But how often does that happen? How often is a respondent seemingly unaware that they are part of a market research study – truly living blissfully within that “fourth wall” trope? Therefore, in certain scenarios, it may be worth asking yourself and your team: Is it time to break the fourth wall of research?

When breaking the fourth wall is done in the right setting and done well, it’s extremely effective. In literature, movies and television, breaking the fourth wall is an effective technique used to engage, inform and connect. In the context of research that can look like:

ENGAGE. When audiences understand that their words/ideas will be heard firsthand by a member of the client/brand they care about or use frequently, it becomes a powerful cycle of engagement and well thought-out feedback from participants.

INFORM. Giving an audience privileged information and/or letting them in on a “secret” can help foster creativity, provide appropriate context and spur idea generation. Hearing this information directly from a brand or client team can be powerful for respondents.

CONNECT. Building a heightened connection with an audience can pay dividends in the long run. In research, it helps strengthen the consumer-brand bond and instill trust that a company is actively engaging in efforts to understand (and react to) their customers’ points of view.

Interact directly.

As part of the qualitative team at Burke, Inc., we run a methodology of large group workshops called Side by Sides. In this methodology, client teams are asked to interact directly with consumers. The direct, firsthand engagement with respondents is intended to increase transparency, deepen immersion and act as a catalyst for learning and applicability.

When utilized, breaking the fourth wall of research can mean that client/brand research teams play any (or all) of the following roles depending on the scenario:

GROUP FACILITATOR. Client researchers, brand managers or marketers can lead the conversation and transparently facilitate a “real” conversation with respondents. The moderator takes a back seat and spurs discussion or plays the role of color commentator.

ASK THE EXPERT. A moderator runs the group or session but the member of the client/brand research team has a seat at the table right next to respondents. As the conversation unfolds, participants are encouraged to question and collaborate with the client/brand expert who is sitting right next to them.

NOTETAKER. It doesn’t require active facilitation or moderation to break the fourth wall. Often, the immersion of sitting amongst consumers in the process of research is enough to effectively interpret actionability and see firsthand the thoughts, ideas, struggles and drivers of respondents.

How do you know when to break the fourth wall? It can often be most effective in instances where foundational learnings and co-creation, ideation and innovation are the priority learning objectives. We also see it used when onboarding new team members or in the process of concept and persona development. It should not be used in instances where observation is a key part of the research and/or where the presence of a client researcher may influence the reaction to certain concepts or creative that are being evaluated.

What objectives can breaking the fourth wall accomplish?

INNOVATION AND CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT. Respondents and client/brand researchers work as a team to create or refine concepts, ideas, journeys and more.

PRE-SEGMENTATION. Researchers can see firsthand how people differ in their attitudes and behaviors to create a questionnaire inclusive of the most important variables.

PERSONA DEVELOPMENT. Test hypotheses about attitudinal or behavioral similarities and differences that define strategic targets to illuminate segments.

CONSUMER JOURNEY MAPPING. Build activities that allow the whole team (supplier, client and participant) to observe and probe the path to purchase or the sequence of a set of behaviors.

INSIGHT DISCOVERY AND VALIDATION. Explore and vet hypothesized tensions to inform innovation platforms, communication strategies, sales decks and more.

FOOD SAMPLING AND SENSORY EXPLORATION. Product sampling and guided sensory feedback.

Two end goals.

What is the ultimate benefit and unique value that breaking the fourth wall can bring? Being present, transparent and actively engaged in consumer research serves two end goals.

First, it is the path of least resistance to truly getting to know your consumers. With client/brand teams on the ground and in the trenches of research with respondents, they experience the needs of their consumer base firsthand, rather than through a secondary report. Want to get closer to your consumer? Sit right next to them. Literally.

Second, closing the feedback loop is powerful with respondents. Consumers want to know that they’re being heard, that their time, opinions and feedback are not being shouted into a void and that they truly get a chance to impact the brands that they love and use every day. Seeing the presence of someone from a particular client/brand team lends credibility to their research experience and elicits meaningful input.

Over the years, we’ve seen the notion of “breaking the fourth wall” take a number of forms. For some companies, it means C-suite executives having a conversation directly across the table from their customers. For others, it’s brand managers and insights teams implementing these types of immersive, firsthand experiences as part of yearly development plans.

Many of us in research have spent years learning the basics. We understand the guardrails in place and have mastered the foundations of our industry. But now – fresh off a period of massive disruption – it may be time to consider breaking your research wall. Lean into something new, something dynamic and immersive. Meet your customers face-to-face. Tell them your name. Shake their hand.

Tear down that wall.

Zach Mullen is a group manager of Burke, Inc.’s qualitative research department.

Interested in reading more? Check out Zach’s other articles:

Qualitative Research: Fast, Flexible, and Full of Truths
Leveraging Technology to Keep In-Person Research Moving Forward

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Source: Feature Image – ©DragonImages –


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