Editor's note: Maya Middlemiss is managing director at Saros Research Ltd., London. She can be reached at +44 20 8481 7160, at email@example.com 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.