Sep 22, 2006

Right here! Right Now! - The use of ‘present tense’ in narratives

Narratives are powerful as a data collection tool in qual research. Story telling is interesting as much as it is intuitive. We all are used to hearing and narrating stories.

The process of story telling in research brings forth - the tiny juicy details around a consumer’s experience that can make any researcher’s day! These nuances are what make one consumer’s shopping trip or washing moment different from another. In a researcher’s quest for attaining a near perfect understanding of the consumer’s experience - it goes without saying then that more the details recalled while narrating an incident – the more vivid is the description and proportionately higher is the understanding and appreciation of such an event.

Story telling most often happens in retrospect and narration most often involves use of the past tense. But what were to happen if we were to take the less beaten track and start narrating stories in the present tense.

While writing about my experiences some days back I found myself oscillating between tenses. On the one hand – rules of grammar learnt in high school forced me to use the past tense, on the other hand I found writing in the present tense helped an easier recall of the tiny details that served to bring the story to life.

When we narrate in the present we relive the moment while narrating in the past is analogous to recall. When we recall something – we are distant (to a certain extent) from the emotions that are associated with an event – it is like watching a sepia toned image in an old photo album. Reliving is experiencing the event with its emotional paraphernalia.

(Taking a bit of a detour – the present tense is actively used in psychotherapy in dealing with repressed emotions / memories – to aid subconscious feelings and emotions in coming to the fore and to experience the event in full blast as it were – while when the therapist wants his client to disengage emotionally - the client is often asked to metaphorically see the event in a picture album / tv screen)

This does not mean that just encouraging consumers to use the present tense in narrations would do the trick. Since we are used to narrating in the past tense – it may warrant some prodding / setting an example to / the consumer. Encouraging the consumer to use as many of his sense organs (olfactory / visual / auditory / kinesthetic) as possible would definitely aid the process.

It is not without reason that the use of present tense to narrate an incident of the past is called the ‘vivid present’. Writers have experimented with the use of the ‘vivid present / historical present’ in literature. Why not experiment with it in qual research I’d say?

Sep 1, 2006

Describing pain…On how can research be designed to help consumer’s articulate emotions?

A tear in my knee cartilage has meant that I frequented a physical therapist – where I was often asked to give a report on the nature and extent of pain I felt.

I started to describe it but something just did not feel right…

I did not have the right words – resulting in a 2 minute long winding sentence - that gave the therapist only a vague idea of what I felt inside

The therapist tried to understand more by asking me questions….which did not do either of us any good

Was it a stretch or a pain? I could not discern

Was it bearable / unbearable? Even if it is bearable – what does that tell you – my threshold for bearing pain could be far higher than that of another individual

How would you rate it from 0 to 10 where zero is no pain and 10 is the maximum?
How do I know what maximum pain feels like? It certainly is not zero, but unless I don’t know the maximum where do I pitch it on the scale?

The whole experience reinforced two things I have known and learnt but haven’t paid enough attention to – perhaps the first hand experience was necessary to appreciate the nuances

a) Emotions are subconscious. Emotions surpass language. Language offers a surrogate way of understanding emotions but words cannot totally and accurately describe what one feels. Try articulating - what you feel when you feel happy / what it means to be in love...and you'll find yourself grappling for words

b) Emotions are felt and sensed as an amalgamation of visuals, images, sensations – its difficult to isolate these sensory perceptions and describe them individually. Also some of these sensations are so subtle and so much beyond our conscious understanding and expression that even if you know how you feel – translating it to words for even a reasonably articulate person is quite an uphill task

All this makes me now a little more sympathetic and sensitive towards research respondents who say ‘I just cannot describe how I feel on seeing this ad’ or worse still remain silent or say I don’t feel anything at all. Those are not just respondents behaving lazy or indifferent. Those are very real flaws in the way we question consumers and design research.

Visualizing emotions may help – asking consumers to close their eyes and
Describe what they see, hear, smell
Where in their body they see it
The colors / images they see or the sounds they hear etc

An exercise in visualizing emotions could not only make it easier for consumers to articulate those – (rather than trying to answer a blanket question like what do you feel?) but also it could offer cues that could be used in designing communication.

(Where is the emotion felt in the body / how it is seen inside etc – for instance adverts for pain relieving tablets often show pain in originating from the affected part in concentric circles and warm colors)

Doing this exercise while the consumer is mentally relaxed with his eyes shut – would mean a greater probability that his focus / attention is inward driven

If getting a rating on the emotion is crucial to the research design then design a scale that is more consumers friendly. This is one good example I found (read last para) where the scale uses everyday experiences from the consumer’s life as benchmarks – rather than abstract descriptors.

This brings me to a related issue – how appropriate is it to compare / aggregate responses pertaining to emotions – since emotions are a very subjective an individual experience, perhaps also influenced by the cultural set up one is part of.

For example – one child understands of pain or happiness - could depend on his experiences / what he is made to understand about pain by his peers or influencers, the physical, emotional, social environment he grew up in.

I guess this would deserve some more reading and another post.