Qualitative Research: Use of Projective Techniques Depends on Objectives

A qualitative research study whose primary goal is to generate as many ideas as possible – e.g., to help launch a new product, service, or name – is different than a qualitative study that sets out to gain insight into the behavior and attitudes among a target group.  The former is exemplified by ideation sessions where, for all intents and purposes, every idea is a good idea.  The other type of qualitative research objective is far more focused in nature, directed at uncovering an in-depth understanding of an individual’s lifestyle and point of view, and where ideas are only as good as the degree to which they complement an individual’s mindset.

This distinction in objectives is important to qualitative research design because it can greatly impact mode (e.g., face-to-face, online), recruitment specs, as well as interviewing style, content, and analysis.  And it is this very last piece – the analysis – that I find most critical because, in the end, responses to a researcher’s questions have to be analyzable.  We have to be able to say something about what happened in the research in order to provide the actionable results our clients (should) demand.  So, a reasonable question for all researchers – qualitative or otherwise – throughout the process is, ‘Can I analyze this?’ or ‘Does this step in the design improve or interfere with my ability to conduct an honest analysis that makes me feel secure in the actionable findings I present to the client?’

Stimulating divergent thinking among a group of individuals to produce a free-flow of ideas is fostered by using any number of creative techniques.  The goal here is to facilitate the group’s ability to make out-of-the-box connections and work with each other to produce many possible solutions to any given issue.  Projective techniques of all kinds can work well in these ideation sessions and, indeed, it is not unusual for focus group moderators to experiment with or ‘try on’ a variety of projectives to maximize rich input from participants.  These techniques might include team as well as individual exercises that motivate participants to look at a topic in a new way and build on each other’s thoughts.

While we are all in the business of gathering ideas, the objective of my qualitative work is generally on understanding individual behavior and attitudes from which new ideas emerge.  This is different than brainstorming for as many ideas as possible.  I am really not interested in how creative a group of participants can be or how many different ways they can look at an issue.  Instead, I am interested in how they think and how that thinking impacts what they do as related to the topic at hand.  I also care about how people talk as well as the group dynamics and its effect on individual thinking.

With all this concern about thinking you could assume that I love to use projective techniques such as the collage.  But I don’t.  I don’t because to truly understand any one person’s collage I really need much more than the scant few minutes I have within a 2-hour group session to hear their interpretation of the collage and really ‘get’ the importance of that interpretation for that particular individual.  I am not a therapist running weekly clinical sessions with this person; but rather a total stranger who knows very little about all the things in this person’s life that are now somehow woven into a force-fed (must-do) collage.

And for similar reasons I generally rule out projective exercises that assign two or more participants to work together.  A team activity often results in a compromise of some sort, requiring an unbundling by the moderator to unearth the individual thinking that lies within (assuming that the dominator in the team hasn’t totally stifled individual thought).  Teams are great for generating lots of ideas but not so useful when the researcher needs to connect ideas to individuals – how they think and how that impacts past and future behavior.

These, and other projectives – pass the doodle, personifications, analogies – which require an undoing to gain true meaning, potentially mask our objectives and hinder analysis when our goal is not quantity of ideas but the reality of how people think.


  1. Another reasonable point of view (of course, all the more reasonable because I agree with it). I think projective techniques have their (limited) place in focus groups, but often become something moderators drag out of their “toolbox” (“bag of tricks”?) that give the client a false sense of depth.

    I’d love to see your point of view on the use of focus groups for attempt at even deeper sychoanalytic-based) attempts at delving into the limbic brain a la Rapaille.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave. I can’t help but think of Psychology Today when I think of Rapaille. Psychology for the common man with lots of entertainment thrown in. Very bright (and very rich) but I would argue that what he does is not research. Very attractive to clients who want to be dazzled by the otherwise mundane research process. It is people like Rapaille that motivate people like me to write blogs like this one as well as a book (I hope to get off the ground soon).


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