Research Tips For Sensitive Topics

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 19 Aug, 2022 | Untapped Thinking

We’ve broken down our innovation research for sensitive topics into 10 easy to remember tips, designed especially for research and development teams innovating within the fmcg and consumer healthcare sectors.

1 | Research Objectives

As with any user research, it is critical to identify your research objectives right from the start:

– Invest time upfront

– Articulate your business question (and where underlying research sensitivities may exist)

– Review currently existing data to identify critical knowledge gaps related to the objectives

– Lay out your plan to enable action after the research ‘what will you DO with the learning’

– Review your objectives and plan with your key stakeholders to ensure alignment

2 | Recruitment

Once your research objectives are clear, you can start identifying how best to answer critical questions and WHO can help you answer them. Thinking through your target recruitment will be very important e.g.

  • Demographics (gender, age, location, income level for example)
  • Psychographics (which of your category segments do they belong to?)
  • Creativity and articulacy are also incredibly important when conducting deeper, more emotional qualitative research related to sensitive topics. Creative and articulate respondents can typically help you dig deeper, to uncover obscure insights that are very beneficial to new product development

3 | Context & Environment

When seeking deeper insights, especially for sensitive topics, it is critical that your respondents feel as comfortable and as at ease as possible. There are a few ways to help with this:

Social listening can also be a beneficial approach when researching sensitive topics.

4 | Research Questionnaire Design

Before jumping into any interview, it is important to recap your research objectives and list your key questions to help uncover new insights. A good in-depth questionnaire will typically include:

  • Ice breaker / warm up / introduction
  • Reassurance of zero judgement
  • Questions related to the category
  • What current products do well today / what qualities they appreciate
  • What qualities are currently missing which they would like to see in future
  • It is always helpful in sensitive categories to bounce into ‘adjacent categories’ too to allow for more open, analogous discussions
  • Always close your interview by thanking the respondent for their time and the depth and richness of their responses.

5 | Research Stimulus Design

As well as asking respondents to identify ‘adjacent categories’ your design team can also identify additional stimulus products to review with the respondents. It can impart a more creative, low-judgment environment and detach from any category-related shame or embarrassment. E.g:

  • Competitor products
  • Products available in other markets
  • New prototypes under development (or sketches)
  • Adjacent category products that people might not have seen before
  • Sacrificial prototypes or products (i.e. that you know will generate low desire but you include deliberately to provoke an emotional response – the two-way spectrum of appeal)

6 | Laddering

Sensitive topics are typically some of the more emotional conversations you can have.

It is critical to ‘ladder’ between respondent life contexts and the context of the product.

It ensures that you accurately represent how these future products fit (or could fit) into their life.

7 | Projective techniques

Rather than jumping into all the literal jobs a product must do, try asking your respondents for analogies, metaphors, and imagery to represent their current and / or ideal product experiences. It’s a helpful technique that allows you as the researcher to seek both articulated AND un-articulated user needs. 

Examples of questions to elicit such articulated and un-articulated user needs could be:

  • Questionnaire: Choose five images that represent your current and your ideal moisturiser
  • Questionnaire: Imagine you could have a conversation with a future food; what might you ask it?
  • Questionnaire: Imagine writing a job spec for your ideal mobile phone; what skills and duties would you include?

8 | Specific, Tangible Action Steps

In any qualitative research, and especially when researching sensitive topics, there is a risk that the conversation with the respondent can stray off-track. As you read their responses online or listen to them face-face, keep asking yourself, ‘can I translate this insight into specific, tangible actions?’ e.g. Could that insight inform …

  • A new product attribute?
  • A new claim?
  • A new demo?

Keep your research objectives front of mind throughout the discussion and analysis as your ‘compass’ to ensure that you are on track and maximising the output and next steps from your research respondents.

9 | A Good Analysis Plan

Every good analysis plan builds on three critical sections:

  1. Objectives: What do we want to know? What critical questions do we need to answer?
  2. Conclusions: How will we drive new actions for the business?
  3. Key learnings: A more detailed section that answers your initial research questions one by one.

For research related to sensitive topics, it is always worth ensuring that your analysis identifies these sensitivities up front. It allows the receiving audience to know the challenges and how they have been overcome.

This highly sensitive approach can also hugely inform your next-stage product development and go-to-market plan.

10 | Presenting Back the Story

We find it most impactful when you tell the story of your research for the organisation to join you on the journey. Ensure that your presentation has a balance of functional and emotional content to engage their left and right brains.

  • Introduce the HERO of your story, your end user and paint a picture of who they are
  • Describe their UNMET needs, and what is missing from their product experience today
  • Explain HOW your new product will address the unmet needs differently

Your organisation is 20 x times more likely to remember your content when told in a story vs a collection of facts. In sensitive, more emotional categories, story thinking becomes even more critical.

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