Editor's note: Barbara Gassaway is president and CEO of The Research Group, Baltimore. She can be reached at bg@researchgrp.com. This article appeared in the June 10, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter. 


In two decades of interviewing youth, I have observed many influential culture shifts but nothing quite as powerful as what currently exists among today's youth. I label the offspring of late-period Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers the "i-Generation" or "Gen-I." Although no one of significant demographic authority has confirmed my label or projected era, Gen-I begins somewhere around 1992-1993 and ends around 2005 (we rely on parent insights for those younger than eight years old).


Engaging Gen-I in qualitative research studies requires adaptation. Gen-I is highly adaptable and expect variety and change. Once engaged, this generation will go with the flow. They presume the pace will move quickly, embrace transformations and spontaneously offer ideas to make things easier, more fun and - most importantly - less boring. In this article, I'd like to share some insight into what research approaches and methods are best suited to Gen-I - and why.


First, remember that Gen-I bores very easily. Once you lose them, it's hard to recover and requires a physical shift. It is extremely important to maintain a 15-minute intervention rule and use exercises that engage Gen-I respondents beyond a verbal dialog. Laddering exercises that begin with writing and evolve to include verbal and physical elaboration will encourage engagement. Be prepared with alternate exercises so that, in the event of boredom, the research can quickly recover.


Conditioned to expect reasoning


Gen-I is sophisticated and conditioned to expect reasoning. A need to understand the consequence is important to achieve deeper meaning or emotive rationale. Share the reason why a participant's contribution is important early on. It may be necessary to provide the reasons beyond the initial study purpose. When questioning takes on a different direction, revealing purpose when appropriate will save time and provide opportunities for richer insights.


Like most human beings, Gen-I requires social validation. You can use this to a research advantage by incorporating reassurance, using their names often, breaking for a reward or treat or requesting immediate peer evaluations. 


Savvy evaluators


Even the youngest members of Gen-I understand advertising, with many comprehending they are a target audience. This creates an educated group of savvy evaluators. They easily connect imagery with real-life references and, with patience and probing, can often relate it to an emotional place. Variety and creativity in execution are critical, as Gen-I does not spare criticisms and will quickly dismiss irrelevant or meaningless concepts.


If you are limited to one medium, hard-copy boards work better than electronic images. Being able to feel the stimulus, share it and pass it around engages respondents more fully. If you can present stimulus in both mediums or include images and audio, that's even better!


Intimacy with technology


Gen-I's intimacy with technology should be incorporated into stimulus and methodologies when possible. Social networks, instant messaging, video, music and smartphone applications are common communication tools. Pre-session image diaries; video diaries; texted responses that flash on a wall or monitor; analogy exercise that use popular icons; and apps that capture respondent data are all useful engagement enhancers. It is critical to utilize social tools of the culture. As the Gen-I vernacular is ever-changing, include a ground rule whereby you give blanket permission to correct your (possibly-outdated) terms and abbreviations.


Tips, tricks and strategies


I'd like to offer seven tips, tricks and strategies to keep in mind when embarking on qualitative research with Gen-I. These best practices can help engage the participants, keep the discussion on track and encourage deeper discoveries.


  1. Be cautious with assumptions. Screen for all required hardware equipment ownership and knowledge. A majority of lower socioeconomic Gen-Iers are tech-savvy while some stricter middle- and upper-middle class parents may not include text messaging on mobile plans.
  2. Go unplugged. During sessions, require that mobile devices be set to silent and on the table or floor in the moderator's sight. If they are not being used in group participation, have a table for storage available away from the participants. It is unrealistic to believe Gen-I will not access their phones within an hour's time if left to their own devices (literally).
  3. Plan for boredom and dissing. Prepare alternate methods to ascertain the same data and be prepared to move on and return to that topic's data dive. Similar to Gen Y, Gen-I can immediately dismiss concepts or content they feel are not relevant, are offensive or unappealing and can get agitated when their strong feelings are not respected. They may not have the same tolerance level as other audiences with redundant questioning. Feel free to push a little but read your audience.
  4. Limit laptops. Unless Web evaluation is your objective, limit laptops to two and create groups for exploratory exercises, Internet competitions, electronic sorts or composing. Going online on their own will distract them from the task at hand.
  5. Try a living-room setting. Dependent on the demographic and project objectives, living-room research settings work well with Gen-I, provided there is limited stimulus. If concepts are numerous or cumbersome in size, defer to a traditional conference-room setting.
  6. Give them homework. Like all respondents, written homework assignments work extremely well with Gen-I in anchoring feelings in preparation for discussions. Keep homework brief and enhance engagement by requesting a few images or videos, either self-expressed or selected references. Provide simple instructions and realistic expectations.
  7. Prepare for individuality. Although anchoring feelings is an important element, groupthink is typically not a concern with Gen-I. Even though social validation drives them, Gen-I (especially females) can offer feelings without pause and extend ideas with an opportunistic attitude if the groundwork is established. A spirit of competition can turn up the volume for creativity (especially among males), where winning typically trumps the desire for social validation.

So what do those tips look like in practice? The following are several outside-the-box ideas for qualitative research exercises suited to Gen-I.


Apples to Apples cards


With its popular Apples to Apples game, Mattel has done the work in providing us thousands of cards with words, from adjectives and verbs to celebrities and famous places. Using the cards, you can ask Gen-I respondents to "select the card that represents" almost anything. The data value lives in the reason for selection, not the term itself.




You can require respondents bring a prop that represents how they feel about a topic, idea or product category. Another option is to have the facility provide props and ask respondents to identify a prop that most closely represents their feelings.  


Competing props create organic dialog when respondents role-play, such as with team-merchandised jerseys and hats or two genders of dolls. Competing props create a debate where much is learned about opposing views. As with all role-play, the moderator has to navigate to the purpose, which should be posted in writing for all to see.


Internet search races


Divide your group into two, provide and equal number of laptops and set a time limit. Ask the group to select a navigator and a secretary and lay out the task at hand (e.g., locate information on a product category or find a related video that represents a viewpoint). With group input, the navigator searches while the secretary records sites and URLs.


Competitive challenges


This is part energy booster, part data collection. The competition can be evaluative or exploratory but can easily absorb precious time. Stopwatches expedite the exercise and enhance anticipation. My inexpensive default option is to provide a variety of typed phrases (e.g., colors, songs, TV shows, personalities, lyrics, etc.) on papers that are cut up and displayed at one end of the room. As a tag team - walking (if you run, you lose) - each respondent selects a phrase, walks it back to opposite end of the room and tacks it to the most appropriate concept, product or advertisement displayed the wall.


For exploratory, have respondents write the most important attribute on a Post-it and then take it back to the stimulus. To make it an individual challenge, track time for each respondent. Prizes for everyone are necessary, with the winner receiving something slightly more valuable.


Post-it exercises


Post-it exercises are a favorite since writing is Gen-I's preferred communication medium. As with adults, the exercises can also quickly organize feelings or preferences if Post-its are color-coded and probed efficiently. An example of a Post-it exercise may be asking respondents to write a favorite food on the green Post-it and a favorite fast-food restaurant on the blue Post-it. Then, reveal prepared wall charts with three labels: Healthy, Not Healthy, In-between. The discovery of data is in respondents' rationale for placement.


Pop-culture creation


With or without props, respondents can create a reality TV show, video game, downloadable app or social community. Younger participants can create a cartoon and real-life product and image sorts are options, as well.


Fundamental rules remain


With all their uniqueness, it's important to realize that Gen-I continues to experience the range of human emotions - they watch TV, are excited to receive personalized snail mail and play board games. Fundamental qualitative rules remain, though the approach may require some creativity. The power of in-person research remains critical to discovering the emotive nuances that drive behavior, even among the tech-immersed Gen-I!