Moving Projective Techniques to Online Bulletin Boards

Projective techniques are a key element of the qualitative toolkit. But, what are the pros and cons of incorporating them into online methodologies? What needs to be considered as specific techniques are chosen?


Projective techniques are a key element of the qualitative toolkit.  But, what are the pros and cons of incorporating them into online methodologies?  What needs to be considered as specific techniques are chosen?
Projective techniques are a key element of the qualitative toolkit.  But, what are the pros and cons of incorporating them into online methodologies?  What needs to be considered as specific techniques are chosen?  
Minimizes Discomfort:  I’ve seen with the medical professionals I often interview that their comfort level varies greatly when projective techniques are executed in person.  They tend to be more comfortable with rational-based techniques (e.g., sentence completion) than with more creative techniques (e.g., color wheel).  I have found that this discomfort, particularly with creative techniques, generally is not as apparent online as it can be in-person. Respondents not only complete the exercises but also provide useful feedback on why they felt or thought a particular way. In fact, respondents may even enjoy the fact that the exercises provide them with a different way of thinking about a particular situation.  For example, when nurses were asked to select an archetype that reflects their role in the treatment of cancer patients, and the obvious archetypes (e.g., healer) are not available for selection, one nurse selected the jester given her ability to make her patients laugh while also allowing them to cry so they can continue their fight.  And, while being there for the patient, she needs “to wear a mask in the sense that I don’t allow my feelings and judgments to enter into how the patients chose to deal with their situations.”  
Time to Think:  The fact that respondents have time to think has its pros and cons. Respondents like that they are able to think about their response as it allows them to be more introspective.  For example, one nurse explained after completing a task, “I loved this exercise.  It made me think longer and harder about what it is I felt or did.  Also, it made me evaluate the effectiveness of that in hindsight.”
Projective techniques used in bulletin boards can result in richer, deeper responses – even compared to an in-person setting.  In an in-person setting, our time can be limited and we don’t always have the time to explore as deeply into a response as we would like. For example, it may prove challenging to elicit a detailed response to a “say, think, feel” exercise about a particularly difficult and detailed conversation between an oncology nurse and patient in an in-person setting where the time allocated for the exercise may be limited.
However, the downside is that it is difficult to ensure immediate, gut reactions will be obtained.  While some respondents will respond immediately and instinctually, others may take quite a bit of time to think through their response.  The researcher may not always know for sure how long the respondent spent on a specific task.  This does not provide a reason not to use projective techniques, as it is an inherent issue with bulletin boards given their asynchronous nature; rather, this is something that needs to be accounted for in the analysis.  
Delayed Probing:  While moderators make every attempt to be on the board at least every couple hours (if not more frequently), there are times that we probe hours after the respondent posts and then they do not see our probe until hours later.  As a result, respondents can have difficulty remembering their original train of thought.   For example, I used a word association exercise, and in one response the nurse noted that words not in our list were the first that came to mind.  So, I went back and probed what words first came to mind.  By the time she saw my question, she could not remember, but told me that she had picked words that were close in meaning.  As this example shows, respondents may not be able to provide us with the desired level of additional detail.  
However, we may not need to probe as often as respondents naturally provide more details since they are more comfortable with the exercises and can take the time to think through their responses.
Similar to providing respondents time to think, the delay in probing is an inherent issue with bulletin boards and could occur with any question, not just with projective techniques.   While the moderators could increase their presence on the board to counter this to a degree, the respondents are still likely to see probes hours later.  
Requires Detailed Instructions:  When conducting real-time research, researchers strive to provide clear instructions for the projective exercises. However, we can easily provide further explanation if the respondents do not understand. This same opportunity is not as readily available during bulletin boards. While the instructions can always be updated, if the moderator sees that respondents are struggling, this may be lost on those who have already answered. It is important that the instructions are as clear as possible at the outset. 
There are a couple of tactics that researchers can employ to help ensure that this is the case.  The first would be to provide an example using that projective technique in a different context than you are asking the question.   Another option would be to vet the instructions with a non-researcher prior to posting the question to see if they find the instructions clear.  You may even want to reach out to researchers who have used these techniques in an online bulletin board to see what worked and what didn’t work for them. 
What I have found is that this is less of a concern for certain projective techniques as the instructions are fairly simple.  For example, a word association task that requires respondents to select three words that they associate with a particular idea or product.  
Tasks that require more detailed instructions can make it more difficult for respondents to complete the task. For example, a collage, which requires extensive instructions, can result in more difficulties and a lower response rate.   In one of my case studies, I used a collage that required me to explain a seven-step process to respondents.  I explained it once in my question text and again in the whiteboard itself.  I still had respondents who struggled.  In fact, I had to walk one physician through the process over the phone.  I had a nurse tell me how intimidating the task looked.  
If you know you will want to use a projective technique that may require more detailed instructions, you may want to look at various platforms to determine which one might make the task as easy as possible while at the same time will meet your other needs for the project.  Leverage the experience of your contact with the platform provider, since they are most familiar with their platform and may be able to provide you insights based on what other researchers have done to ensure the process is as easy as possible for the respondents.
Technical Competency of the Audience:  It is important to consider the technical competency of the audience. This does not mean that researchers should not include the more technically complex tasks with a less tech savvy audience. Rather, these complex tasks should be balanced with easier tasks. This also speaks to the need to provide clear instructions to ensure that any lack of technical competency does not interfere with the respondent’s ability to complete the task.  So, for example, if I’m going to have the respondents do a collage exercise, I will balance that with easier questions/exercises that are posted around the same time.   
Capabilities of Selected Platform:  Given the variety of platforms available, it is important to determine what techniques will be employed and select the platform that will allow you to incorporate those in the most user-friendly manner. 
There is no reason for qualitative researchers to abandon projective techniques in an online bulletin board setting.  They can still serve the purposes for which they have traditionally been used: to facilitate a deeper understanding, to explore sensitive issues and to understand emotional response. The success of migrating your favorite projective techniques into this platform depend on adjusting the technique to fit the new context including considerations for how you instruct participants, the capabilities and limitations of the platform and the impact of the platform on respondents’ reactions to your questions.  Researchers simply need to be aware of the potential issues and simply take them into account when designing the research and during the analysis process.
Caroline Volpe is President at Compass Market Research, a full-service marketing research consulting firm, working with pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies. She is also a member of the Qualitative Research Consultant Association.  This blog post is based on case studies with physicians and nurses specifically designed to evaluate projective techniques online.
This content was provided by Qualitative Research Consultants Association. Visit their website at


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