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Research heroes: Joanna Chrzanowska

Joanna Chrzanowska dove into the deep end of children’s research in the early 1970s. Broader horizons beckoned, including fmcg, healthcare, and a lot of work for the music business. At the same time, she trained in NLP, organisational development and counselling. Joanna is now primarily a trainer in qualitative methods and helps to develop qualitative qualifications. She published a book on Qualitative Interviewing in 2002, and was awarded an MRS Fellowship in 2004. She runs a training support website at

The most liberating thing I discovered was the importance of being yourself as an interviewer. Not having to copy somebody else’s style or pretending to be extrovert, when you are not. Being genuine and authentic models these qualities for the respondents. Yet this has to be combined with a non-judgmental curiosity. The quickest way to stop a respondent is to react naturally, and show you disapprove. I can’t keep a neutral looking face; I react to everything, so I have had to work on my biases and prejudices so that I can be natural without offending anyone.

I most admire Liz Hauck, who started as a freelancer and then built Hauck Research into a thriving company that was eventually sold. She did this with integrity, avoiding the sausage machine processing of projects that came with the expansion of the industry. She has the gift of being able to inspire others and make everyone feel they really matter.

In a very early example of truly immersive research my partner and I worked with a package holiday company – by spending a week in Tenerife with their customers. We learnt about recruiting and motivating people to give interviews, the importance of context in understanding behaviour, and how alcohol does not lead people to say more interesting things – they only think they do. It sounds glamorous, but was actually hard work. We did however, return there for our holidays afterwards.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career involved running groups for a proposed organisation called the Child Support Agency. It was designed to force absent parents (usually fathers) to pay towards the upkeep of their children. I worked with the lone mothers; another research agency with the fathers. The mothers immediately saw the proposals as a ploy by the Government to pay them fewer benefits. They were concerned that ex-partners would use the payments as justification for unwelcome interference in their lives. They did not want to open the door to irresponsible and abusive men, who were exes for a good reason. The mothers had other ideas for getting off benefits, but the Government was determined to make these absent fathers ‘take responsibility’ and push through the legislation, no matter what the research said. I was perhaps naively deeply disappointed at this token use of research – but quietly triumphant when the CSA was disbanded after some years of ineffective operation.

I once had to follow an SHO (junior doctor) around for a day as part of an NHS role redevelopment programme (this was well before the days of Lifelogging, and I remember a Palm Pilot being involved somewhere). Running up and down stairs to get bloods several times a day, grateful patients, screaming patients, god-like consultants, practising suturing on pigs bladders, trying to get into theatre to observe an operation... It was physically and emotionally draining. Every NHS manager should be made to do it as part of their initiation.

As part of the same programme I had to interview the consultants. On being introduced to one as a market researcher, he said in tones of great contempt “I suppose you work on Mars bars”. To this day I am not sure if that meant I was a ruthless proponent of consumerism, or too stupid to be an academic researcher, or something else. Two days later I was scheduled to do a depth interview with him. After pulling out my recorder, interview guide and pen, I placed a Mars bar on the table between us, while keeping a perfectly straight face. He eventually cracked a smile, and put it in his pocket at the end of the interview.

I love the creative use of qualitative methods. As a trainer and assessor I get to see lots of great projects I can’t mention, but virtually every paper that has won the AQR Prosper Riley Smith Qualitative Excellence Award has me sighing in admiration. The work that fascinates me most involves exploring the decline of the old model of consumerism – certainly in the UK and US. With resource limits, economies and market shares that cannot grow forever, and a developing awareness that happiness is not about owning increasing amounts of stuff – have we reached ‘peak curtain’? Some of our most basic assumptions are being challenged, and we have to rethink business models, ideas about ‘consumer motivation’ – indeed, the very concept of the consumer.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be dancing, or psychotherapy. In fact, therapy through dance would be ideal.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is professionalisation. Anyone can claim to be a qualitative researcher and the amount of knowledge and skill to do it is seriously underestimated. I welcome the people who want to do a bit of their own research. I train them. It is fine to do simple projects as long as you are aware of the potential for introducing bias, and you have good interviewing skills. But that is like going to the supermarket to buy painkillers for a headache; they alleviate the immediate symptoms, but you don’t know if the root cause is more serious. We still need to have professionals who can diagnose the symptoms, refer to their knowledge and experience, run the appropriate investigations, and provide an educated and comprehensive recommendation for a cure.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is learn to think qualitatively. This will future-proof a career in qualitative research. In the latest MRS Business of Evidence report, the qualitative area has been identified as a key area of growth. Julie McLean, senior manager at PwC commented: “….We see it as a counterbalance to growth of big data.” Qualitative research is no longer defined by sample size or where the data comes from. It is not about in-depth interviews or focus groups. You will be working with qualitative data sets from a range of sources, helping to add understanding and insight. Qualitative thinking is about having an open, exploratory, and analytical mind-set that seeks to find the meaning of what people think, say and do. Welcome hypotheses and theories. Think beyond the brief. Learn from other disciplines, and from existing research. If you think your job is simply to take the client’s questions and put them to consumers, then you will probably be replaced by some form of Artificial Intelligence long before you make it to Research Director!

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