Watching and Listening – An Alternative to Direct Questioning?

In the early 90’s, the ‘tagline’ of a leading Japanese agency’s brochure was ‘the key to understanding was to read between the lines of what was not said’. Two decades later, Shobha Prasad re-visited the issue focusing on the layering and subtleties of Asian languages in ‘Listening to the Sounds of Silence’ at ESOMAR’s APAC Conference.

As Asia grows more healthy, wealthy, and wired, superficially its consumers resemble their Western counterparts. Sometimes even, having leapfrogged technological lifecycles, they appear more advanced. Nevertheless, although these new trappings bring an almost ‘stateless’ vocabulary to the world’s languages, the fundamental challenges of interpreting local cultural nuance and international comparisons remain.

Direct questioning methods is felt to be (even) less effective in Asia due to language structure, cultural norms, and social convention. Asian consumers are often not so forthcoming with opinions than Western ones – although researchers in Mumbai or Manila may well disagree. The real issue, though, is the huge variety of expression, both verbally and visually. As well as vocabulary and sentence structure, different expressions also support communication. Cultures displaying emotion less conservatively usually have the mouth as the main focus; a culture that masks its feelings focuses more subtly on the eyes when determining emotion. So, visual cues can be equally important to gauge underlying sentiments.

With its size and heterogeneity, Asia arguably displays the greatest diversity in responses to typical research questions especially scales. Japanese and Koreans are notoriously ‘mid-point focused’ on 5 or 7 point Likert scales, rarely using the extremes, whereas in the Philippines a Top 2 box score of 65% is often deemed mediocre. In 1992, Dr. Lynn Lin, (then of BASES) showed that to correctly interpret seemingly identical responses across Asia’s markets required significant refinement of the raw scores with the aforementioned countries at opposing ends of the ‘re-calibration’ spectrum.

So what are the alternatives to direct questioning?

One option is to switch to ‘listening’ mode and exploit social media more actively. On Twitter (or Sina Weibo in China), an often overlooked fact is that, being ideograms, 140 Chinese or Japanese characters possess 5-7 times the content of European phonetic alphabets. Hence, in several Asian markets, there exists a potentially richer source of data to exploit.

Another relatively recent development that merits consideration here (and not only within ‘reserved’ Asian cultures) is the application of neuroscience and biometric methods. Although still debated within MR circles, these methods can overcome some of the problems associated with direct questioning. Nevertheless, a potential drawback is scalability in large, lower cost markets with weaker technical infrastructures. Currently, EEG or galvanic skin response measures are relatively costly to implement and technically complex.

One intriguing, more scalable alternative, used in Asia by a couple of companies, is facial imaging. Conducted via webcam, it measures consumer emotional response to advertising, product concepts, TV programs and other marketing stimuli, and is relatively low cost to administer. Based on Darwin’s theory that facial expressions of happiness, fear, disgust etc. are innate and universal (thus unaffected by culture, ethnicity etc), and developed for the mobile age, this approach can access parts of the consumer psyche without having to resort to direct questioning. For more background go to

So, by adopting the newer disciplines like social media research and ‘neuro/biometrics’, which means listening and watching as well as questioning, we can address many of the issues outlined above. If we are able to effectively bring ‘culture-neutral’ technologies into the mix, we can make significant progress towards overcoming the twin challenges of ‘reserved’ and ‘extreme’ responses to direct questions which impact conventional market research in Asia.

(This article first appeared in Research World in March 2012 )


2 Responses to Watching and Listening – An Alternative to Direct Questioning?

  1. LoveStats says:

    Are you promoting multi-method research? Listening AND asking AND watching? I like that very much!

    • David McCallum says:

      Thanks for the comment. Well, certainly listening, asking, and watching would give a 3D perspective on the issue at hand. Although, to be fair, the top moderators have been deploying those three approaches in focus groups, since the dawn of MR. Here, the tone of response and the attendant body language are often crucial to put the vocabulary of the transcript into context.

      What I was trying to highlight was that different cultures (not just West v. East but cultures within those geographies) have different emphases on how they communicate across the three channels. Thus, given the constraints of the topic and the time allocated to the research, the challenge is to choose the best ones for the job.

      Then again, a research program could incorporate the three channels in different stages – asking and listening in creative development research, then watching (say via facial imaging) to reactions of the output in terms of advertising creative, new product concepts, and so forth.

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