Qualitative market research is often aimed at increasing understanding of consumers’ thoughts and feelings toward brands, products, concepts, advertising, social issues and other important topics. Projective techniques are indirect methods used in qualitative research. These techniques allow researchers to tap into consumers’ deep motivations, beliefs, attitudes and values. This is important because psychology has told us for a long time that much of what drives behavior can be emotional and irrational in nature. To some extent, these emotional drivers of behavior lie below conscious awareness (Source)

Below we are presenting 3 exemplary projective techniques in concept research which are widely used by analysts:


Unmet Needs / The “Ideal” Product (Magic Wand Exercise)

Unmet needs can be difficult for respondents to identify. The challenge for the moderator is that the respondent knows the answer, but respondent doesn’t know he knows the answer!

It is hard to imagine a future that is very different from the present. 15 years ago, who would have said “One of my unmet needs is that want something like the Internet”? Books have been around for centuries: who would have said 5 years ago “I wish there was a way I could read a book on a tablet or e-reader?”

The way to overcome this problem is to ground respondents in current reality to stimulate their thinking, and then build outwards from there through a wish fulfillment exercise.

The way this would work is the respondent would be asked to:

  • Focus on a wound type or indication
  • Identify the current products they would be most likely to use, and a few they would be least likely to use
  • Describe what they like and dislike about these products. The moderator would record these in columns on a flipchart, with the attributes as the rows.

The moderator would then begin creating and specifying a new column: the “ideal” product.  Picking and choosing from the attributes, based on likes and dislikes, the moderator would create an “ideal” product column, checking with the respondent at each step.  The “ideal” product would have certain positive attributes, and avoid certain negative attributes.

Once the column was fairly established, the moderator would then ask, “If I gave you a magic wand, and you could have anything you wanted in an ideal product, what would you wish for?  We have a list of attributes already: what more do I need to add to make an ideal product?” In this exercise the term “anything” is relative: the respondent will not be allowed to set the price, and the moderator will mention which red line areas a product may not have. As the respondent mentions his/her “wish list”, the moderator will continue to modify the ideal product profile as thinking evolves.

The reason why the “ideal product / magic wand” technique is useful is that it stimulates the respondent’s thinking about what already works / does not work, while providing an opportunity for new ideas to be added.

Please note that if a new product is being “designed from scratch” a more wide-open ideation process is a better approach: something that maximizes idea generation and pure creativity. The approach outlined above focuses more on fine tuning existing products, with a focus on identifying fit and gaps (“unmet needs”).

The “ideal product profile” building exercise is a variant on an approach used in a study where a large manufacturer of medical devices in a category had recently purchased a competitor: a niche company that was actually beloved by its customers. How should the large company position its new acquisition?  In a focus group decision makers were asked to describe the “personality” of each of the companies in the category: what characteristics each would have if they were a person. The moderator used these characteristics to build the profile of the “ideal” company in the category, always bringing the discussion back to attributes that affect the decisions the respondents make. (So, for example, while “socially responsible” might be desirable, the moderator would focus more on attributes like “trustworthy” or “good communicator”).  The moderator then verified with respondents where there are “gaps” between the ideal company and a given competitor, include the large company and its smaller acquisition.  This approach allowed the large company to see where its positioning overlapped with the smaller company, and was sensitized to the gaps in perception.

Bulls-eye Exercise

Think of a target with concentric circles, like a dart board or the target on an archery range with its colored rings. The closer you get (with a dart or arrow) to the center of the target, the more points you score. The goal is to try to “hit the bulls-eye” – the center of the target.

This approach can be used to evaluate a set of products or to dive more into concept research. Give the respondent a worksheet with the bulls-eye diagram: a darkened circle at the center, with 4 concentric rings around it. Give the respondent the criterion for success: what must be true about a product concept to hit the center of target? This “criterion for success” could be the “ideal product” profile created above, or some other set of desirable attributes. The respondent is then asked to mark on the target worksheet where each product in the category falls. The product could be placed anywhere on the page, even outside the furthest ring. Respondents would then explain their rationale for where each product is placed.

One nice feature of the exercise is that products that do not exist today can be added to the mix: Product X, Product Y or Product Z, based on different potential product enhancements.

The bulls-eye approach has been used in advertising research.  Before the words are placed on the page, an advertisement uses a visual image, and clues in the picture, to suggest to the reader what the ad is all about. A pharma company was approached by its ad agency with a set of “concepts” – 4 to 10 visual images / layouts. Physicians offered their reaction to these concepts in a 2 step process:

  • First, physicians were asked to rank the concepts based on “stopping power”: if the physician saw the concept as an ad in a journal, how likely would the physician be to stop and want to actually read the ad to learn more about the product?
  • The physicians were then given a description of the product – not in terms of efficacy and safety data, but what attributes of the product the ad agency wanted to communicate (new MOA, dosing frequency, etc.). The physicians were then given a bulls-eye worksheet and asked to mark how closely each concept fits the description of the product. If a concept fits the description perfectly, it would be placed in the center of the target.  For each concept, the moderator would then go through the description item by item to see how closely each concept fit the description. (Example: does the concept suggest a new MOA, and why?)

The ”stopping power” exercise is important because this reflects how a physician would actually encounter the ad: with no knowledge of the product beyond the visual concept and its accompanying headline. But the “bulls-eye” exercise helps indicate whether the concept is communicating what its author intended. Stopping power can be influenced by what a physician personally “likes”, but bulls-eye pushes beyond likes/dislikes and focuses on fit.


Card Sort Exercise

If it is unclear how a category is structured, a card sort exercise is helpful. Put the names of products on 3 x 5 cards, hand them to the respondent, and ask the respondent to arrange (to “sort”) the cards based on “what goes with what”. It is important to leave the instruction vague: let the respondent create his/her own groupings.  The moderator then explores why the respondent chose this particular arrangement of the cards.

We have used this approach in a therapeutic area where a product with a slightly different MOA was being introduced. The product’s method of action was somewhat like existing category Z and somewhat like existing category Q. The card sort exercise gave the respondent the chance to struggle with whether the new product is part of Z, part of Q, or an entirely new category (it turned out to be a new category).

Card sorts can be valuable if the sponsor is willing to “upset the apple cart” and try an entirely new way to classify its products. If the product categories are already established and not meant to change, however, something like the “ideal product” or “bulls-eye” exercise will yield more useful results, because their attributes are more specific and explicit.


If you wish to learn more about the nature of qualitative research, read our Introduction to Qualitative Research in Medical Market piece. If your interests lie more on the quantitate side, please head to either Introduction to Conjoint Analysis and An Overview of Conjoint Methodologies in Medical Device Markets. Or, if you’d like to discuss your research project, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.