The number of professional viewing facilities in the UK has mushroomed in the past five years and the trend, now established in the US, looks likely to become prevalent here. However, the inevitability of this growth has by no means made it uncontroversial. Indeed, the industry is divided over whether or not viewing labs are a good thing.

The concerns of qualitative researchers focus on the effect of the viewing facility experience on all three groups involved: the respondents, who may feel intimidated by the artificial environment; the clients, whose perception may be limited by both preconceptions and attendance at too few sessions; and the researchers themselves who, as one moderator put it, can virtually feel the clients breathing down their necks from behind the two-way mirror.

On the other hand, there are obvious advantages to using a professional facility, particularly for clients. The opportunity for brand managers and others, who do not normally hear what consumers think about their products, to learn some basic facts about grass roots opinion must not be underestimated.

Alex Authers is research director at New Solutions. He says: “With viewing facilities clients get to hear it from the horse’s mouth. The non-verbal responses and the passion of respondents about products and services are helpful, and the video evidence is useful for future reference. Even though it may not reveal the whole picture, it can support training and future strategic decisions.

“Using viewing facilities is useful for all sectors, particularly food and drink, where the consumer can interact with the product. There is also plenty of space to spread papers around, put up artwork or use a visualiser to draw concepts as you talk.”

Anne Custance, a senior manager at Craton Lodge & Knight’s independent research facility Eyewitness, adds: “A good lab can seat up to 20 clients comfortably and a good session will really give clients first-hand experience of watching customers. I remember one senior figure in financial services being so appalled by how ignorant consumers were about basic banking information that he and his team went away and rewrote all of their banking literature.”

Diana Brown is chair of the Association of Users of Research Agencies (AURA) and head of marketing and sales information for the Royal Mail. As a research user she finds viewing labs useful and says plus-points outweigh any disadvantages.

She adds: “Qualitative research presents problems because it is interpretative and arguments can always be countered. But it can be salutary to hear what real customers have to say.”

Critics of viewing labs, however, claim their use can profoundly affect quality of research, particularly where inexperienced clients are concerned.

Laura Marks is ex-planning director at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO and has set up her own planning consultancy. She is also chairman of the Association of Qualitative Research Practitioners (AQRP).

She says: “Clients often go to just one or two groups out of ten in the whole research programme and make decisions based on that limited experience.”

Goodthinking managing director Wendy Gordon adds: “Some clients will judge the researcher by things like the quality of food or amount of booze they get behind the mirror.

“Out of eight clients present only one or two will be open minded. The rest will be having a business meeting or laughing at the ‘punters’, as they call them, for being too stupid to understand what the client was trying to do. There is a general lack of respect.”

Gordon is also adamant that the viewing lab fails to bring out the best in respondents.

She says: “It’s an artificial situation. They know they’re being recorded but don’t know who is behind the mirror. This can make them icy cold with fear.”

Of course this situation will be exacerbated when dealing with consumers rather than business customers, who will be more inclined to expect rather formal surroundings. However, Jane Oakley, director of Crucible, argues that the formality of the situation can bring the best out in all respondents.

She says: “Making people feel comfortable is important, but this needn’t be done in a front-room environment. The professional atmosphere and fact that viewing facility locations are often in town centres conveys a sense of occasion and gives respondents the feeling that more is being expected of them in a professional way.”

Custance adds: “Eight strangers brought together to discuss something will be uncomfortable whether they are in a viewing facility or a front room. The key is having a skilled moderator to put people at their ease and to be up front about the two-way mirror right at the beginning.”

The skill of the researcher is central to arguments for and against viewing labs. The pro lobby argues that the problem is not the labs themselves but the management of the client expectations that surround them.

Says Custance: “It is down to a skilled moderator to put groups into context for the client. Clients can handle being told that they have a limited view because they have only seen one group out of several and have not conducted the full analysis of all findings which they will get in the debrief.”

The Royal Mail’s Brown adds: “The researcher has to manage client expectations and be able to counter any arguments with a full grasp of all the data and analysis and explain that the client will not have seen the whole picture before, during and after the research takes place.” However, she accepts this task may be easier for an in-house researcher than for an agency.

Prosper Riley-Smith, director of qualitative research agency Davies Riley-Smith Maclay, is even more emphatic. He says: “Clients can get the wrong end of the stick whatever the process. Truth is not gained by denying access to data. It’s up to researchers to work harder to explain their role to clients; that they are needed to listen to, analyse and interpret the data.”

To Gordon and Marks such remarks are fine in theory but, they claim, conveniently ignore the realities of many situations.

Says Marks: “Clients tend to evaluate the success of a group based on how much people chatted. However, respondents may not have anything to say, perhaps because a brand isn’t communicating clearly, which is an insight in itself. Clients can’t help but bring preconceived ideas to the research. They also lack the experience a good researcher will have in watching out for body language that contradicts what is being said, and in listening to people talk.”

Gordon adds: “With ten people behind your back, skin-pricklingly close, a researcher is under tremendous pressure to put on a performance. She feels she must make sure the group gels quickly and that the whole process is entertaining as well as insightful. In the US the situation is worse because it is more common for clients to have a direct line to the respondents ear or to send notes in during the session.”

The potential problems of lab-based research should be eased by the work of the Viewing Facility Association (VFA), set up two years ago by Jill Lonsdale, who herself runs viewing studio Speak Easy.

Clients who deal with VFA-registered facilities will hopefully feel sufficiently confident to trust the expertise of the professional researchers who run them.

This respect for research skills should mean clients are more prepared to accept the limitations of their own experience and to listen.

Lonsdale says: “I thought we needed some forum for viewing facility owners, as anyone can open one, even without a research background. We have a code of practice that any members must agree to abide by, and we also act as a mouthpiece for studios at industry level.”

Ultimately, the onus for protecting the quality of research conducted in viewing labs falls on the shoulders of the researchers themselves.

As clients get more involved in the business of research it is easy for them to underestimate the role of researchers and see them simply as moderators and facilitators. But good qualitative research allows issues to come up that may not have been thought about before. A good researcher must not only have the skills to do the core job, but also be able to convince clients of the value of these skills. They must manage client expectation and increase client understanding of the whys and wherefores of the viewing lab research process.

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