Image Technology in Qualitative and Quantitative Research: Get the Picture?
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “picture?” Possibly one of the most widely repeated phrases ever: “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s trite, but it seems to me that the triter a statement, the truer it’s likely to be. While we can argue the number (and it’s probably not 1,000), we can agree that a single image may communicate far more than a single word.
Our world relies on images to convey meaning efficiently. Think of directional street signs, public restroom doors, and Ikea instructions. As technology has matured, we have become a society educated in icons: just look at your cell phone’s home screen and you’ll see universally understood symbols that navigate to your phone, text messages, emails and countless other functional tools. That navigation would be much more difficult if it were based on words.
And of course anyone who has been working in market research over recent decades has witnessed the evolution from narrative reports to graphic decks.
It’s clear that pictures have won the day over words.
Before I became a professional market researcher, I earned a master’s degree with a focus on visual communication. I did what we’d call “a little study” on the use of images in print advertisements. My resulting thesis, Rugged Cigarettes and Sexy Soap, demonstrated that pictures alone could confer meaning onto products, without the presence of supporting words.
After completing my degree, I entered the field of market research at a time when data was mostly collected by phone. No images there. Here we are years later and data collection has largely evolved, but our surveys still concentrate on verbal questions and answers. Those cell phones that we have become so adept at navigating are increasingly used by research respondents, and we are trying to cram a lot of words onto those screens.
There are many cases where images have been incorporated in online surveys. Brand-related questions can show logos instead of simply using names, products can be illustrated, and mock advertisements can be presented.
I would like to advocate going further. Images do a great job of facilitating emotional access; for example, when displaying an array of pictures as part of a prompt asking why respondents feel the way they do about a product or situation. Icons can help orient participants to survey structure and content, and can heighten engagement. Technology also offers reverse communication in a survey: respondents can easily upload photographs or images that help them more effectively share information with us. A photo of a product usage occasion is like a mini, moment-in-time ethnography within a structured survey.
Indeed, there are both qualitative and quantitative market research applications for images (and video). In addition to facilitating queries, I often use simple picture selection tasks as ice-breakers when conducting in-depth interviews via shared computer screens. I have yet to find a set of respondents who don’t become more engaged and animated through those exercises.
I’m excited that technology has brought my professional work back to the ideas that shaped my academic studies. I’m even more excited that this technology is enhancing the quality of our research investigations.