Getting to Truly Authentic Insights with Immersive Qual

Harnessing the power of our brain’s happy hormones.


By Kelly Pellico

Have you ever been asked by a doctor, nutritionist or personal trainer about your eating habits, only to omit the daily muffin you inhale, or the gelato you frequently indulge in? 

Well, if you’re at all like me, it’s likely your vulnerability and self-protective instincts have you polishing your rough edges whenever questions of a personal nature come up. In an age of social media, it’s almost impossible not to put our most idealized personas on display. We humans are a comparative species, constantly trying to live up to the pervasive glamour we witness online. Whether conscious or not, we’ve been trained to only show the best sides of ourselves. Even our IRL selves appear as polished as possible.

At Vital Findings, our research is careful and intentional in order to break through those self-protective layers, allowing us to hear the deeper struggles and feelings of our participants. But in the more formal atmosphere of a focus group facility, there may still be some bias present as our participants try to put their best faces forward. 

To help them open up and give us their most authentic selves, we’ve experimented with our research designs and are excited to share what we’ve learned.

But before we dive in, let’s first talk a little about brain chemistry. As you probably know, our brain releases endorphins when we’re active and when we’re social, particularly when we’re happy and laughing. Endorphins, also dubbed “nature’s morphine,” and other happy hormones reduce stress and anxiety, putting us into a relaxed state. I can personally attest to this being true. If I spend the day tightly wound and under a cloud of anxiety, it all clears as soon as I’m laughing with friends over dinner.

Using the basic chemistry behind this relaxation, we discovered that a simple shift in atmosphere has taken us to new depths of authenticity. 

Here are a few ways we’ve harnessed the power of our brain’s happy hormones:

Activity Immersions

When we were commissioned to create a study about hikers and their habits, we wanted to put our participants into an environment where they would feel most like themselves. And we knew that setting the right tone would stimulate their thinking. We held a focus group and co-creation session inside a camping-themed venue. The interior of the venue felt very outdoorsy, with wood paneling, forest imagery, end tables made of tree stumps and a huge rock-climbing wall, all of which created a pleasing indoor/outdoor ambiance. The venue’s outdoor space even sported a fire pit and hiking trails. We started the day hiking the outdoor trails alongside our participants. As we did, we quickly discovered this act opened a wonderful door to an incredibly effective way of finding a fluid, natural rhythm of conversation.

There are many publications and studies about the benefits of engaging in conversation while walking. According to a recent MindTools article, “research by the American Psychological Association shows that walking enhances people’s creativity and productivity. According to neuroscientists, walking increases blood flow to the brain, which helps people to express ideas more fluently.” In other words, when we move, our brains become more active. While the benefits of a walk-and-talk may seem like an obvious way to learn about hikers, it can be effectively harnessed for other audiences as well. For example, taking a walk with video gamers to activate their thinking, then bringing them back to a gaming-immersed environment, is an excellent way to stimulate conversation and gain insight. The ultimate goal is to surround participants with elements that represent what they’re most passionate about, and to get a little Vitamin D for additional stimulation when possible. The result is stronger and more authentic communication.

Day-in-the-Life Immersions

If you want to truly understand your customers, learn how they spend their day. In the past, we’ve often relied on diaries to learn more about a customer’s daily routines. We still do, but recently we also began orchestrating day-long immersions, and we’ve found that experiencing a typical day with them gives us deeper understanding and greater empathy. The immersions engage all of our senses because we’re no longer just hearing about our customers’ daily lives, we’re seeing and feeling it, too. We start by mapping out their typical day, maybe a stop at a coffee shop on the way to work in the city, followed by a meet-up with friends at a bar on the way home. And then we tag-along, seeing their local haunts, watching how they engage with friends, noting which mode of transportation they use, and generally witnessing all the details of their day. A day-in-the-life immersion allows us to walk in our customers’ shoes and can be as much fun as it is enlightening.

Experiential Brand Pop-Ups

If your brand is tapping into the experiential, tap into it too. This opportunity is rare compared to the others, but it’s highly impactful when within the realm of possibilities. When the opportunity has presented itself, we’ve held focus groups within the space of an immersive brand pop-up shop. It really brings the participants INSIDE and INTO the brand. The product is there, which is important, but it’s more about being surrounded by the ethos of the brand: the colors, shapes, symbols and language used to convey a brand’s meaning. It allows the participants to feel the brand, and they can in turn relay those feelings to us.

Brand Mixers

We’ve held focus groups over dinners and have hosted cocktail mixers as well. This change in atmosphere brings in a few new elements to the mix. First, it elevates a traditional focus group to the level of an event, and second, it shifts the participants to featured guests, creating a vibrant energy that boosts their comfort and creativity. It also frees our clients from sitting behind a glass wall. With these brand mixers, they’re able to mingle with participants and enjoy real, personal connection. In our experience, breaking bread together has proven to be an amazing portal where conversations flow naturally and ideas surge.

For maximized success, it’s essential to choose the right venue and vibe. Avoid restaurants with blaring music or those with too many tables on top of each other. Participants need to hear one another and be given space to move freely. Which brings us to the importance of thinking carefully about how you’ll use the space. Will it be intimate, with small groups gathering and staying in one place? Or do you want people to move around and flow between different topical zones? While there’s more to consider and coordinate than with a traditional focus group facility, good food and good wine will free the ability to connect, relate and share more of ourselves. 

It goes without saying that shifting your atmosphere isn’t right for every occasion. Each individual event must be planned and carried out thoughtfully. If you’re working to immerse yourself in the life of the customer, a walk through the city center and a stop at a noisy bar may be appropriate. If you’re diving into a person’s health and wellness, you may be better off walking the nature trails together. And if you’re workshopping ideas that require certain materials, a traditional facility will still be your best bet. Know what you’re hoping to learn and then craft the right atmosphere to support that goal. Then you’ll be able to push beyond the surface to capture insights that are rich in authenticity, and effective in guiding your brand.