Best Approaches for Sensitive Topics Part 1: Descriptive Research Design

In the ever-evolving landscape of market research, specifically qualitative research, navigating sensitive topics requires a thoughtful approach to research design and an empathetic posture in conversation.  Thinking about the last five years, our world has experienced significant change.  The challenges to name a few include COVID-19, inflation, political upheaval, racial tensions, and war.  Respondents have all of these issues in the backdrop as they come to participate in a market research discussion.

Acknowledging and understanding these challenges is crucial for designing and conducting effective market research that uncovers valuable insights and appreciates participants’ life challenges.  In this blog post, we explore the importance of descriptive research design and qualitative techniques in facilitating conversations about sensitive topics.

  1. Choosing a Research Methodology

    Careful attention to research design is crucial when conducting qualitative market research on sensitive topics, such as personal health issues or controversial subjects.  A well-designed research study provides a solid foundation for exploring sensitive topics and allows researchers to navigate potential challenges with sensitivity. The choice between individual interviews and focus groups plays a significant role in obtaining valuable insights. Focus groups offer the advantage of shared perspectives and gathering multiple points of view quickly. Alternatively, individual interviews provide a more intimate and private setting that can encourage participants to express their opinions more freely for deeper conversation but require a greater time investment and cost.  In the context of sensitive topics, individual interviews often prove to be the preferred method as they allow participants to share their thoughts without fear of judgment or peer pressure.
  1. Designing the Guide to Build Rapport and Trust

    Careful thought should be put into research design to allow for building rapport and ensuring participants’ comfort and emotional well-being. Participants can also be given a couple of thought-starter questions prior to the research to get them thinking about the topic.The structure of the discussion guide should sequence questions with broad, general questions at the start to establish rapport and trust before moving into more difficult and sensitive areas. Some questions might be too triggering if asked too early in an interview, overwhelming participants and hindering their ability to provide meaningful responses.
  1. Research Techniques for Uncovering Insights

    Researchers often encounter situations when personal experiences need to be delicately handled while exploring experiences and feelings. To tackle this challenge, two powerful techniques can be used: projective techniques and metaphor elicitation.Projective techniques involve adopting a perspective that allows researchers to explore how someone experiencing a particular situation might feel. This approach asks, “How do you think someone experiencing this problem might feel,” even though the participant might have personal experience. It encourages the participant to step into the shoes of a situation or problem and discuss the more general emotional landscape, while distancing themselves a little from their personal experiences and emotions. Metaphor elicitation taps into the power of language to convey complex emotional states in an accessible and relatable manner. Metaphors provide a framework that allows participants to express their emotions without directly recounting personal experiences. This technique allows for a deeper understanding of a subject’s emotional world, while respecting their privacy and emotional boundaries.
In conclusion, conducting market research on sensitive topics demands thoughtful research design to lay the groundwork for success.