Michael Carlon is a pioneer in qualitative market research. His career has taken him from leadership roles at companies like Mastercard and Unilever to founding his own research consultancy, Vertigo Partners. Along the way, Michael has become well known for his skills as a moderator, in large part due to the development of a unique methodology he calls the “shattered glass” approach. In addition to his research career, Michael is also the author of six novels and a host of his own podcast.
In our conversation, Michael emphasizes the enduring role of the moderator in modern research, his strategies for avoiding bias and revealing truth, and what he considers the challenges facing today’s researchers.
Respondent: Welcome to Respondent’s luminary conversations, Michael. I was wondering if we could begin with you telling me a little about your background and how you got started in the research field.
Michael: I started my career back in 1996 working in digital marketing and advertising. I was fortunate to work for a company that was a leader in the field of building interactive experiences for clients. This was back when the web was only two years old, so a lot of the work we were doing was breaking new ground. It was our responsibility to understand what people wanted in interactive experiences. So we did needs assessment and put ideas in front of people and got reactions from them. That was my entry into qualitative market research.
I continued in that field simply because I loved the idea of asking people questions and getting answers. It was something that felt really good to me. I had studied psychology as an undergraduate and wanted to be a counselor or therapist. Running consumer interviews or focus groups turned out to be really similar for me. It was something I just fell in love with.
Respondent: You’ve been running your own research consultancy, Vertigo Partners, for over 15 years now — which is amazing. One of the ways you’ve differentiated yourself is through your “shattered glass” approach to research. Could you explain what this means?
Michael: This grew out of an article I wrote for Quirks magazine that’s probably 10 years old now. It’s the idea that we should be tearing down the walls between our clients and consumers. Thirty years ago, you may have had a call center doing telephone interviews with customers that clients could listen in on. That’s all gone now because it’s all done online.
— Michael Carlon, Vertigo Partners
Qualitative research is now the last area where marketers can listen to consumers. The original place to do that is in a traditional focus group facility. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with that. People sit behind the glass, they listen to people talk, they watch people talk. More often, however, I see people doing email, or doing social media, or doing anything but listening to the group discussion, particularly after the first group or session is done.
So the idea of shattering the glass is bringing clients into the room so they can have direct experiences with the consumers. This can involve co-creation sessions, where I have clients in the same physical space as the consumer, not separated by that glass mirror, or it may involve going into the consumers’ homes to better understand how they live. This approach is all about making the research experience more interpersonal by giving clients the opportunity to experience who their customers are, where they live, how they live, and so on, without having the interviewer be another filter.
Respondent: By encouraging such close interactions between your clients and their research participants, I’m curious how you, as a moderator, ensure no possible bias is introduced or that they’re not influencing each other in ways that will render the research ineffective.
Michael: It’s an excellent question because there is the possibility that if someone puts their client hat one, they can absolutely introduce bias. The first thing you should know is that this shattered glass approach is not appropriate for every single project. If I’m doing a concept exploratory, for instance, where I’m testing out new ideas, then clients don’t come into the room. It will just be me and the consumers. However, if it’s more about me getting to know who the consumer is — what I call target illumination or ideation — then I have clients join me in the room or home, but I give them specific instructions.
For example, what I’ll do first is train them on how to ask questions, how not to ask questions, and how not to bias a conversation. I also give them specific jobs. I might have someone facilitate a sub group where all they have to do is ask a couple of questions and record responses and post things on a whiteboard or an easel sheet so that they're not necessarily moderating but more facilitating a discussion. I never have them introduce an idea the company has come up with because that’s where bias comes in.
The purpose of them being in the room isn’t necessarily for them to do more probing but so they can hear first hand from their customers, without it coming through a speaker or watching through a window. Instead, they can feel the energy in the room and get a sense of who these people are. So that’s what I’m talking about when it comes to shattered glass. Bringing clients a little bit closer to their customers in those scenarios when it’s appropriate to do so.
Respondent: I want to take a step back. Why do you think market research is necessary to the process of good design?
Michael: There’s a natural tension — and I think it’s a good tension — between designers and researchers. Designers are creatives, they’re artists, and so they often have a vision for what they want. For that reason, they don’t necessarily want to hear anyone critique their work. So it is important to understand the drivers and barriers to appeal, and that’s where qualitative research comes in and shines — if it’s done appropriately.
Where I think research really plays an important role is in the pre-design process. So before you have sketches, product ideas, or any kind of design idea, it is critically important to understand what the consumer needs. I don’t know how you design or redesign something without fully understanding what the consumer needs or how what currently exists needs to be optimized.
That being said, there is still a role for research to test out ideas that have already been created for a number of reasons. Take a big client like Unilever. They tend to have a lot of new product ideas in their innovation pipeline. We know that some of those ideas are going to fail. But it’s important to understand what the drivers and barriers of appeal to a design or idea are.
To do this effectively, I avoid what I call beauty pageant research sessions, where you just throw up a bunch of ideas and ask which ones people like or don’t like. What I try to do instead is present the facts to people. We talk about the product concept or the insight driving the product concept. We talk about what their general reactions are, such as whether they are hot or cold toward something. We don’t talk just about what they like or dislike. I think that’s an important distinction to make.
— Michael Carlon, Vertigo Partners
I use the same approach if an idea or product concept isn’t turning someone on. I want to dig into what isn’t working but then always go to a constructive place and ask what can be done to make it better so that you can experience the benefits it’s intended to give you. When you phrase your questions and structure your conversation like that, then all of a sudden those designers in the back room are less angry and less anxious and less defensive because what you're doing, as a researcher, is identifying ways to strengthen what they’ve done. And showing that you're willing to fight for their idea a little bit.
Respondent: One of the ways you’ve described yourself is as an “out of the box” moderator. What do you mean by that?
Michael: I try a lot of new things when I run sessions. First of all, I’m very energetic. I don’t sit still when I’m trying out new things, and I often don’t follow my discussion guide word for word. I might also play a game in the middle of a session to shake things up a little bit.
The purpose of all this is to bring some more fun into the session. As a moderator, you’re going to be tired after talking for six hours a night, and your lack of energy will influence people in the room. So you have to do whatever you can do to bring the energy back. Methods like these can help keep you and your clients entertained, as well as boost the energy of the people you’re trying to get feedback from.
Respondent: You’ve done a lot of work with companies in a variety of fields. What advice would you give new researchers trying to break into the profession?
Michael: It goes back to writing. There’s the idea of writing what you know so that you’re coming across as authentic. To me, the similarity between that and research is finding areas where you have a personal interest in and pursuing clients that allow you to work in those areas.
For example, I’m very interested in medicine. So the idea of talking to sick people doesn't scare me — it interests me. And there’s a lot of emotion you can uncover when you’re doing pharmaceutical research. So you want to work in areas you know and that you’re comfortable in and that you can bring some authenticity to.
The advice I would give somebody, if there are areas you are interested in — whether they are sports or videos games or, like me, financial services and pharmaceuticals — then there are plenty of opportunities out there. You just have to seek them out.
Respondent: Looking forward, could you detail any potent challenges or obstacles to quality market research that lay ahead?
Michael: There are two big ones in qual research. The first one is whether the interviewer has the skill set. Anybody can go out there and call themselves a moderator. I think the membership of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association is well into the thousands — and that’s only a fraction of the people who work in the field. This means there are a lot of people hanging out shingles calling themselves moderators or strategists or interviewers or whatever.
The second challenge is the quality of recruiting. We could spend another two hours talking about horror stories when it comes to the people who we get to interview. It doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest moderator, you’ll look terrible in front of your clients if you interview somebody who bribed their way into the research, or who isn’t articulate, or who is not who they say they are.
I’ve interviewed the same guy under different names multiple times under different recruiters. [Laughs] He lives in New York state, his name is Salvio, and he goes by a couple of different aliases. It’s just amazing how many times I see this guy from different recruiters, to the point where I throw my hands up and say this is what’s wrong with our industry.
Respondent: Michael, thanks so much for the conversation.
Michael: Thank you so much!