Harnessing visual intelligence for enhanced marketing research insights 

Editor’s note: Maxwell Wang is founder of marketing research firm Researchism, China.  

There is a saying passed among pilots during World War II that is still used in the military today and loved by football coaches:

“Instead of defaulting to what’s right in front of us, we must keep shifting our perspective. Doing so can help us find more information, more of the story, the missing piece, the right path, the true intent or even the way out.”

In this article, I’ll dive into how this way of thinking that can improve marketing research insight – visual intelligence.

Visual intelligence and qualitative research 

The concept of visual intelligence can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci, who attributed his scientific and artistic achievements to saper vedere, or the ability to observe.

How can we enhance visual intelligence or insight, apply it to qualitative research to analyze markets and customers and dig deeper into insights? Can we train our brains to observe more accurately and increase our insights? And how can we maximize our innate abilities in information gathering, strategic thinking and critical thinking to enhance our insights?

To help answer the questions above, I have selected and summarized three perspectives from Amy E. Herman's book "Visual Intelligence" that are beneficial for enhancing insights in qualitative research, along with our company’s relevant project experience and results: 

  • A sense of perspective. Not only using our eyes but also employing our rich senses to analyze what we observe.
  • Mental perspective. Avoid describing experiences solely from our own perspective but look at issues from others' perspectives to better meet their needs and desires.
  • Go and see. Like Toyota's Gemba walks (philosophy of "going to the field"), going to the places most relevant to our work, such as where products are produced, sold or used to better understand our work.

1. A sense of perspective. 

When we observe and design research methods, we should ensure that all senses are utilized.

What information can you obtain from the following picture?

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. Boston Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 

If we stand in the perspective of the female bartender, feeling the environment she is in, will we experience:

  • Sight: The bartender, the gentleman on the opposite side of the bar, the crowded room of customers in front of her and the performers on the suspended pole above.
  • Smell: The scent of orange, a hint of alcohol, the fragrance of flowers in the vase, and the overpowering smell of smoke in the room.
  • Touch: The cool and hard marble of the bar counter, the stuffy and murky indoor air and the shimmering lights.
  • Sound: The noise inside the room, the clinking of glasses, people's conversations, music and the tinkling sound of the crystal chandelier.

Inspiration for qualitative research 

Whether in observation or in designing research methods, we should not only use our eyes to analyze, but also engage our senses such as taste, hearing and touch to analyze the things we observe.

2. Mental perspective. 

When we analyze the content of the qualitative research interviews, we should practice observing from multiple perspectives.

The British philosopher and writer Roman Krznaric says, "Empathy is the key to a successful marriage, getting teenagers to talk to you or stopping children from being bad-tempered. Empathy is a practice of emotional expressiveness. It involves standing in someone else's shoes and understanding their feelings and perspectives."

Just like the statue of David pictured below, if you were asked to describe the characteristics of David, could you identify several types of David?

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. Boston Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Different people see different versions David from their own perspectives.

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. Boston Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 

Examples could range from strong, heroic, relaxed, languishing, contemplative and peaceful, all the way to a face full of tension, nostrils flared, eyes wide open and eyebrows furrowed.

Inspiration for qualitative research 

This perspective allows us to approach research content from the perspectives of both consumers and end customers when analyzing problems. By avoiding describing facts solely from our own perspective and looking at issues from the perspective of others, we can better meet consumer needs.

Similarly, we can also consider putting consumers in the perspective of the brand to discuss the future development of products or brands together. For example, if you were Elon Musk, what new features would you think could improve the competitive advantage of your products or services?

3. Go and see.

When designing research methods, we often hope that clients can join us in “walking into the lives of interviewees” and breaking down “psychological rigidity.”

Toyota's Genchi Genbutsu work philosophy of "going to the field" (Gemba walks) encourages employees to go to the places most relevant to their work, such as where products are produced, sold or used, to better understand their work.

To achieve this, we need to constantly seek and organize objective facts – who, what, where and when.

The more unfamiliar the places you visit, the more likely you are to refocus on your insights there and overcome the drawbacks, namely "psychological rigidity" by psychologists or the habit of viewing things from a single perspective.

Inspiration for qualitative research 

Immersive research methods and tools help us establish a deep understanding of target consumers and gain in-depth insights by observing and analyzing their behavioral experiences, underlying beliefs, emotions and mind-set in relevant scenarios.

In summary, when you apply these three perspectives directly to qualitative research, researchers can:

  • Use all senses to inspire and discover insights.
  • Stand in the shoes of the research subjects to understand their feelings and perspectives. By focusing on the perspective of the target audience, researchers can better meet their needs and desires.
  • Walk into the environment, events, places and time that are most relevant to the characters, discover and organize objective facts from their perspectives, and focus on insight.

Case study examples of visual intelligence and qualitative research 

Now that we understand how visual intelligence can be used to inspire qualitative research, let’s look at five brief case study examples. 

1. Helping children's candy brands improve product attraction.

Utilizing the “a sense of perspective” approach:

During the research process, we encouraged child participants to express their overall sensory experience of candy through drawing, inspiring product design and both online and offline marketing.

In this case, the method helped the client find more specific product satisfaction and expectations of the target child audience for candy products – including changes in mood before and after use, specific moments and reasons for satisfaction.

2. Helping high-end hotels optimize the check-in experience and gain user insights.

Utilizing the "a sense of perspective" and the "go and see" approach:

Researchers observed the entire consumer experience of hotel guests from check-in to check-out. And targeted guests were asked to recall their entire stay in sensory terms, including: 

  • What did you see, smell and hear when you checked in?
  • How did the five senses feel after entering the room?

The methods assisted in helping the brand optimize the guest's movement path, including the flow from the front desk, concierge, lobby, hallways, guest rooms, bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities. It also provided the brand concept from the perspectives of "spiritual benefits" and "aesthetic pleasure."

3. Helping high-end home appliance brands improve their CRM (customer management plan). 

Utilizing the “mental perspective” approach:

During the interview, we involved consumers in CRM design as marketing personnel. By combining their own needs for the brand membership system and the perspective from inside the brand, they designed more practical membership benefits and systems, rather than idealistic requirements. This can help us better explore consumers' specific needs for the membership system (what membership benefits are needed) and upper-level needs (what are the core benefits of joining this brand's membership).

The achievements of this method assisted the brands in understanding the core attractions and benefits of different membership levels. It also helped in providing a long-term CRM planning route from "attracting new members" to "attracting repeat purchases" for the brand's CRM.

4. Helping liquor brands understand the target audience portrait and identify points of communication.

Utilizing the "go and see" approach:

We invited the respondents and their friends to go to the KTV, bars or restaurants where they usually go for entertainment. We observed on-site and immersed ourselves in their entertainment life to understand the entire process from location selection, ordering to entertainment games. We also understood the different roles of different types of alcohol on different occasions and their real life after work.

By combining this method with in-depth prior research and on-site observations, we were able to understand the pain points and aspirations of the target group and identified potential brand roles for the client. Through on-site visual exploration, we also identified specific communication materials for the client's future brand communication, such as communication scenarios and venues, communication insights, etc.

5. Helping the HR department of a motor oil brand find a communication direction to attract young mechanics to join the company.  

Utilizing the “go and see" and the “mental perspective” approach:

We went to branded workshops and auto maintenance shops to gain first-hand knowledge of the 24-hour life of mechanics. Revolving around their childhood dreams, life experiences and everyday stress and workload, we observed their passion – for mechanics as well as for racing and their professional ambition –dampened by the stressful but monotonous work and life. 

Following this approach, a professional training and sponsorship program was designed to help potential young mechanics achieve their career development and realize their goals.