Skip to: Main Content / Navigation

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Add This

Natural, neutral or funky? The impact of venues on research participants

Article ID:
January 2014
Maya Middlemiss

Article Abstract

The author looks at how research participation is affected by the venue and uses exit-survey data from Saros Research to assess the pros and cons of natural, neutral and creative settings.

Editor's note: Maya Middlemiss is managing director at Saros Research Ltd., London. She can be reached at +44 20 8481 7160, at or on Twitter at @Sarosresearch. This article appeared in the January 27, 2014, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.


Taking part in qualitative research is always a slightly unusual and potentially discomforting experience for participants. However likeable the researcher and interesting the content, what follows is never going to be a completely natural and spontaneous conversation. The participant always brings to it certain expectations and ideas, which are influenced by a number of factors. When we talk to research respondents before and after they take part in research, it's sometimes surprising how much the non-research factors matter to them - and none more so than the venue for the research itself.


Most natural setting


It could be argued that the most natural setting is in the respondents' own home or personal environment. And for ethnographic and observational research, where the context is important, this makes sense. But our feedback from participants, even from those who really enjoy taking part, is that for them it's far from ordinary: They tidy up their living room, perform as best they can for the researcher and are concerned about how they came across.  


After all, few visitors ever see our homes as we truly live in them, even if they are not ethnographers waving cameras. We all create and present ourselves to the world on a daily basis and like to be seen as good hosts with a nice place to live; this inevitably invites a value judgment on some level.


A neutral environment


If we step into a neutral environment (e.g., a public building or viewing facility), it's easier to be ourselves and perhaps to relax into thinking about what we are going to say, rather than worrying about the state of the bathroom or if the coffee is finished brewing. The anonymity and impersonal nature of the environment helps reset expectations and also creates a level playing field among group participants.


Some researchers argue that this detachment offers respondents the opportunity to disengage and potentially dissemble - should they wish to present an overly-constructed face to the world - but I would argue again that we all consciously create the impressions we want to share all the time and it's easier to do this from a point of neutrality. Certainly compared to the old-fashioned U.K. practice of conducting research in the home of the recruiter or note-taker, a public venue is preferable. Our feedback is that participants recruited independently of each other feel very uncomfortable going into a stranger's domestic space and are unclear as to what their role is and what behavior is expected.


The welcome matters


Of course direct observation isn't required for every research project but somewhere like a hotel meeting room makes for a professional and welcoming place. And what participants tell us is that the welcome really matters. A friendly host who makes the procedures clear, tells them what's going to happen, offers refreshment and makes them feel at ease - this is what they are going to remember, far more than the address or location, and this sets the mood for the whole event.


Naturally, when participants are engaged in your group discussion we hope that they are 100 percent focused and, as such, the venue becomes a hygiene factor anyway. So long as they are comfortable in terms of seating, ambient temperature, lighting and so on, the other aspects of the immediate environment matter little. A prestigious address or stunning interior design is not perceived by the participants as influential on their behavior or mood. Indeed, particularly striking locations are potentially distracting, even if they are enjoyed.


Now, that is obviously self-reported from the participants, and you as a researcher might feel differently (i.e., that there was a positive gain in raising the creativity and energy of the room). We are probably our own worst witnesses as to what makes us act or express in certain ways and, very often, arty and imaginative spaces tend to convey other values too: more subtly, that the researcher values the input of the participants; that they are co-creating something important; that they are expected to take risks and be ingenious. If the surface perception is that the room was distracting, maybe this is enabling something more inventive to come through after all. And respondents certainly do say they enjoy being in funky and arty venues.


After the event

As participant recruiters, our feedback comes from exit-surveying respondents we have placed. Thus, we are not in a position to proactively test the qualitative differences between research conducted in a creative venue rather than a neutral space with all else being equal. I would love to learn the outcome of that and see whether researchers' and participants' perceptions are in line on the impact of the research venue itself.

Comment on this article

comments powered by Disqus

Related Glossary Terms

Search for more...

Related Events

August 11-13, 2014
RIVA Training Institute will hold a course, themed 'Facilitation - Practical Tools, Tips, and Techniques,' on August 11-13 in Rockville, Md.
August 12-14, 2014
Burke Institute will hold a workshop focused on designing effective questionnaires on August 12-14 in Las Vegas.

View more Related Events...

Related Articles

There are 2449 articles in our archive related to this topic. Below are 5 selected at random and available to all users of the site.

Focus groups aid positioning of new boiler control technology
To determine how to market a new boiler system technology and identify the target audience, Cleaver-Brooks conducted focus groups with prospective buyers from a variety of industries and applications, such as hospitals, manufacturing plants, schools and universities. Via an earpiece, the moderator received coaching from company observers throughout the focus group process to ask follow-up probing question or to rephrase questions. Field tests with sample customers were also completed.
Survey and sampling in an imperfect world
This article addresses the demands that arise in a random sample survey and their effects on sample, offers solutions, and proposes stratified random sampling as an alternative to help achieve the same level of accuracy as computed on a simple random sample with a reduced sample size.
The role of research in medical device design
The FDA mandates good manufacturing practices that ensure proper medical device design. This article discusses medical device design research, advocating a user-centered approach to health care products and devices as good business.
Use corporate ethnography to understand and reignite your brand
In an increasingly turbulent business environment, corporate ethnographic research may just be the tool today’s companies need to develop the competitive edge necessary for survival. To capitalize on your brand’s inherent power, you must understand your own organization. This article discusses using corporate ethnography to gain insight into a brand and the inherent nature of that brand based upon a greater understanding of the organizational culture itself.
Companies seeking insights on satisfaction shouldn’t overlook online and other text sources
Verbatim responses and other textual sources provide valuable and often untapped sources of insights on customer satisfaction. The author cites a case history involving hotel company Starwood and its use of text mining to glean helpful data.

See more articles on this topic

Related Suppliers: Research Companies from the SourceBook

Click on a category below to see firms that specialize in the following areas of research and/or industries


Conduct a detailed search of the entire Researcher SourceBook directory

Related Discussion Topics

06/06/2014 by Monika Kunkowska
TURF excel-based simulator
04/17/2014 by Giovanni Olivieri
04/10/2014 by Felix Schaefer
TURF excel-based simulator
03/25/2014 by Werner Mueller
I would like Turf Macro too!
03/06/2014 by Neelam Hinduja

View More