Several years ago, I was moderating focus groups with IT professionals on the topic of business software selection and loyalty. The client wanted to build communications around scenarios that had an emotional pull, so we agreed to ladder from the “likes” (the rational features and attributes) on up to the emotions and feelings caused by or involved with each feature mentioned.
One late night in New York City, I started the laddering process with the group. As often happens in a group, each ascent up the ladder settled on one individual in the group and was then repeated over other group members. We’d gotten through the benefits and the personal consequences and had reached the last rung of the ladder: “And when you have/are _________, what is the personal value of that to you” or “How does that make you feel?” (Or sometimes, “That gives you a sense of ________?”). This respondent replied: “I have no feelings at work. I am making purely rational decisions about technology. I save my feelings entirely for my personal life.”
Well, that was a show-stopper. The proceedings ground to a miserable halt halfway up the subsequent ladders, as others in the group began to echo that same viewpoint.
For those with an interest in behavioral economics, these IT professionals were insisting that their thinking and decision-making regarding business software is deliberate, effortful and rational – an example of the System 2 or “slow thinking” referred to by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Over the many years I’ve been laddering with business and IT people, scientists, librarians, attorneys and so on, individually and in focus groups, I have often encountered this barrier. (I actually may take that back about scientists – at least life scientists. They typically move quite easily up the ladder because there tends to be a strong emotive drive that inspires them.)
So how do we facilitate and ease the process of laddering to find: the key features driving interest in the product (e.g., the next generation of enterprise servers or database software, etc.) and the motivations or emotions linked to those features that enable marketers to build communication scenarios?
Qualitative researchers who work primarily with consumers may be wondering how this issue applies but I wonder if, indeed, the inhibition to admitting an emotion in a group, or the difficulty of actually finding the precise name to pin on “how I feel” exists to some degree among any population (except perhaps a focus group of psychologists).
Purists may object, but I’ve come across a method that has been very successful in building up the ladders. This method involves using to the PC (or tablet) to facilitate the process in a group or even in individual interviews.
Bridge the emotive barrier
Technology has benefitted so many aspects of qualitative research. This approach to laddering uses technology to make it much easier for respondents to bridge the emotive barrier and for us as researchers to generate rich information. The process goes as follows:
refer to the process as an exercise;
be very specific about the topic to be laddered;
use specific questions for each step of the ladder (not simply “and why is that important…”);
complete the initial steps (or rungs) on paper;
draw the group’s attention to a matrix projected via your laptop or iPad to the wall (or large video screen) to complete the more difficult emotive rungs of the ladder as a group effort to “help me fill in this chart.”
Colleagues and I have used this evolved method very successfully among not only business and IT professionals but also among consumers, examining topics such as teens’ perceptions of smart TVs, consumer selection of e-mail software/services, investor selection of financial products and many other products and services.
A good (fictional) example might be from technology, with the topic being cloud storage. Our interest in this topic could be to uncover not only the positives but also the perceived negatives and the linked emotions to those negatives to find a way around fears or concerns.
After a brief (perhaps written or video) explanation of the concept, and beginning with the positives, we would hand around a paper to each member of the group that resembles Figure 1.
Group participants are asked to write in on the page “those things you like about the idea – its positive characteristics.” Then, for each feature or attribute that you like, follow the arrow and write in below it “what you see as the benefit of that ‘like’ for you as a user.”
Next, we ask the group members to circle the column number of one most important “like” or positive feature to them.
Variations of this first step for participants might be extended to include intermediary benefits: their perceptions of benefits for their family and friends, elements that are likely to enrich the conversation and provide additional insight into potential scenarios and communications content (Figure 2).
As another example, if we were to conduct additional groups among business and IT decision makers, variations might look like those shown in Figure 3.
If the research study also seeks to understand the perceived negatives (as a study on this technology well might), it is sometimes better to collect the information on the negatives and problems just after collecting the positives. (Note that for less-contentious topics, it works equally well to hold off on the negative track of the exercise until after completing the positive.) For the negative track, we would hand around another page to each respondent as shown in Figure 4.
Participants are then asked, once again, to circle what they perceive to be the one most troublesome negative aspect.
We then begin the more challenging part of the process – moving from the more rational side of attributes and benefits to the more difficult side of emotions and motivations. For this example project, we would project a matrix something like the one shown in Figure 5 on a wall or a large screen and ask the group to “help us fill out the boxes” (or “help fill in the matrix,” for businesspeople).
The moderator asks for volunteers to pitch in and help fill in the blanks: “What is your most important ‘positive’ – what have you circled as most-liked? And what is the benefit of that to your immediate circle of family or friends? And if your family/friends have that benefit, what is the benefit to you? What have you written down?” If others have selected this same attribute, we can collect their perceived benefits as well, as we type, filling in the boxes as we go.
Then we ask, as we would in any laddering exercise: “When you have that benefit, what is the consequence of that for you? How does it make you feel?” Our experience has been that the question is far less intimidating to participants than it is in a “technology-free” situation. Typically, several participants will pipe in with how they feel. On many occasions, I have had group participants (often in the B2B sector) work together to find the precise word to describe “that feeling that you get.”
As further illustration, a partially-completed matrix – mid-exercise – might look like the one shown in Figure 6.
The unlabeled boxes (bottom row) can be used for additional layers or additional variations in responses or to collect branding information (“What brand do you associate with this feature?”). A negative matrix would proceed in a similar manner, with the addition of boxes for “desired solutions” and “benefits of solutions.”
I have heard it argued that typing on a laptop or tablet keyboard during a focus group is distracting to participants and, indeed, almost insulting. At a minimum, it is said that this activity can work against the bond established in a group. In fact, when the typing is related to amassing group feedback, we have found the opposite to be true. In a sense, all in the group, including the moderator, are working together to complete a task. The very fact that the moderator is working with them to capture their responses accurately in the display actually generates bonding. We have experienced increased group activity and suggestions (“a better word/a better way of saying that…“) and an atmosphere of teamwork. The process itself focuses on the team aspect and redirects attention from an individual who might feel put on the spot. The focus is now on the matrix itself, where everyone can pitch in to make it an accurate and effective representation of their thoughts, perceptions and feelings about the topic.
We have experienced real benefits in using simple grids projected from a PC screen to facilitate and enrich the laddering process: getting at and prioritizing the individual rational features or attributes that really are important to the buyer or user; allowing respondents an easy and less fraught way of identifying emotions; enabling group members to assist in a non-threatening way in finding that precise (or more precise) word that describes the feeling or emotion; building a very rich variety of ladders; working across multiple cultures; and making analysis incredibly easy.
Editor’s note: Based in Washington, D.C., Bernadette DeLamar is vice president of Mozaic Group.