Picture this

Editor’s note: Carey Rellis is president of Good Karma Consulting, a St. Joseph, Mich., research firm.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what can a collection of images communicate? The short answer: a whole lot.

That’s why qualitative researchers have long relied on collage techniques to provide richness and understanding beyond that accessible through conversation alone. With collage, each respondent acts as curator of the museum of his or her mind, selecting and displaying images in a vivid exhibit of perceptions, attitudes and psychology that tells the story below the surface.

By engaging in this projective exercise, respondents marry left-brain analytics with right-brain creativity to subconsciously explore the topic at hand. In so doing, they move beyond the structure of thought to the freedom of emotion, discovering lively symbols that speak more clearly than mere words can. Such symbols shape the unique story each respondent has to tell about his or her experiences with a brand, product or category.

What’s more, whether they complete their collages at home or at the facility prior to focus groups, respondents who visualize their perspectives in this way enter the front room feeling confident in what they have to say. Creating collages has prepared them to spend an hour or two sharing valuable insights they may not have known they had.

Not without its challenges

As helpful as traditional collage can be in deepening communication among respondents, moderators and clients, the scissors-and-glue method usually employed in collage-making is not without its challenges:

  • When used as homework before focus groups, collage increases recruiting costs because respondents hesitate to commit to group time and 30 to 60 minutes of work ahead of time. In addition, it leads to more respondent no-shows and last-minute replacements due to incomplete or forgotten homework.
  • When used during focus groups, the arts-and-crafts aspect of collage-making consumes precious face time with respondents - time better spent sharing ideas and insights.
  • In both cases, gathering the materials required for collage and scanning the finished product for use by moderators and clients can prove cumbersome and add complexity and cost to preparation, analysis and reporting.

Fortunately, taking this traditional tool into the digital realm addresses these concerns and can offer other benefits as well. By simplifying collage-making, a digital approach broadens use of this technique to time-crunched respondent pools, yields richer consumer insights and simplifies reporting - often at a lower cost than traditional collage.

Giving up something you love

Generally, employing online techniques alone requires giving up something you love about qualitative research. For example, while online focus groups or focus blogs are convenient, such methods sacrifice the richness and nuance of body language, which comprises 67 percent of interpersonal communication.

Likewise, videos uploaded by respondents may tell you a lot about shopping or usage experiences since you see respondents’ facial expressions and hear their inflections. However, you cannot feel their responses in the same way you do when you sit in the same room with them.

On the other hand, using digital collage as a supplement to face-to-face focus groups or in-depth interviews can enrich the research experience for all. Moderators can glance at collages prior to focus groups to hone discussion plans; clients can view collages on their laptops or on a projection screen in the front room instead of squinting through the one-way mirror; respondents arrive curious about the conversation ahead; and no one sits idle while others flip through magazines.

Digital collage also can serve as a low-incentive follow-up to recent research. If, after some analysis, a client wants to ask another question, digital collage offers a cost-effective way to do so - and potentially get meaningful answers in the process.

Lastly, used in conjunction with online research methods like the ones mentioned above, digital collage can re-inject some of the depth and emotion lost in translation between the real world and the virtual one. Technology certainly has its benefits - including convenience and cost savings - and digital collage can help you reap them along with rich insights gleaned with a touch of tradition.

Far broader

Plenty of us have used photo-editing software like Google’s Picasa to create photo collages for personal use. In crafting a holiday card or assembling a gift for grandparents, you simply select images from your own library of digital photos and place them as you see fit to share your story.

Digital collage for qualitative research purposes works much the same way, though the assortment of images used is far broader than snapshots of a recent vacation. Respondents can use common computer software (Microsoft Word and PowerPoint both work well) as a canvas, placing images they find online in a blank document. Alternatively, moderators can provide respondents with zip files of images they have selected.

Making collages in this way has several advantages over physical cutting and pasting:

Variety. Inviting respondents to browse the Web in search of images or providing them with a diverse image library - rather than relying on whatever magazines they happen to have on hand - enriches the resources at their disposal as they share their experiences.

Simplicity. Beyond a computer and Internet access, digital collage requires no materials. Respondents simply click and collage; there’s no need to hunt for a glue stick with some life left in it.

Likewise, the finished product is easily e-mailed to the research facility and passed along to the moderator and client either electronically or in print form. Respondents “bring” their collages with them to focus groups effortlessly, and suppliers and clients store, transport and share collages without cumbersome scanning and can incorporate them into reports and presentations almost instantaneously.

Speed. Collage homework can be completed in five to 10 minutes online vs. 30 to 60 minutes in the offline world. This reduces one barrier to participation in qualitative research and makes collage less costly (more on that in a minute).

Value. With corporate budgets ever tighter, market research - especially the qualitative kind - must generate deeper insights that improve business decisions to be deemed a worthwhile investment. A tool like digital collage can deliver more bang for your research buck through greater respondent engagement, more efficient use of focus group time and meaningful visuals easily incorporated into reports and archives.

Furthermore, the cost of collage decreases online. Facilities no longer need to spend hundreds of dollars on magazines, and the added incentive for traditional collage homework - as much as $50 per respondent - usually disappears altogether.

A few things to consider

If you’d like to give digital collage a try, there are a few things to consider as you take the virtual plunge:

Tell respondents how many images to choose. Setting a minimum number of images will ensure you get the richness you want. After all, a collage with only one or two photos won’t tell much of a story.

Ask for a title and key words. When it comes to collage, combining the visual and the verbal enriches the story. Respondents’ interpretations of the images they choose are just as important as the images themselves.

Provide a timeline for completion. Respondents are more likely to meet a deadline that isn’t too far into the future. Assigning a digital collage with a short but reasonable window for completion works best.

Remember to debrief. Honoring respondents’ digital collage homework by letting them tell their stories aloud during focus groups refreshes their insights and deepens yours.

Reap the richness

Interested in building your own digital collage? Moderators, clients and facilities alike can follow these simple steps to reap the richness that comes with this technological twist on a traditional qualitative technique:

Create a photo library. Gathering 50 or more evocative, metaphorical images in a single PDF or zip file simplifies digital collage for clients. You can take these photos yourself or draw them from free or fee-based stock photography Web sites.

Build a template. With the right embellishments, a simple Word document can guide respondents through the digital collage process. You can insert a text box at the top that reads, “Type title here.” Another at the bottom might read, “Type key words and themes here.” Lastly, a box drawn at the page’s center could instruct respondents in the number of images to copy and paste in that space.

Write clear instructions. Providing thorough, step-by-step directions concise enough to fit in the preview panel of an e-mail message will increase the likelihood that respondents complete their digital collages - and do so correctly. You might repeat those instructions on the first page of a Word document, using the second page as a template as described above.

Where to find digital images

A digital collage is only as rich as the material used to create it. That’s why it’s critical to gather high-quality photos when building image libraries for your respondents. Several Web sites offer such photos, either free or for a per-image or subscription fee - and without photographer royalties or copyright concerns attached.

Free stock photography sites
www.sxc.hu (stock.XCHNG)

Fee-based stock photography sites