Musings on visual methods

I was very lucky to attend a training session on the use of visual methods in research in January 2020. I say ‘lucky’ because I always feel that attending training or a research seminar or a conference is such an amazing privilege. I love learning and I love teaching and, as a teacher, I do a lot of the latter and get an enormous rush of pleasure when the tables are turned and I am in the position of learner.

The session was organised and led by Dr Charles Hancock and Professor Carley Foster of the University of Derby and was funded by the Society for the Advancement of Management Studies. Speakers from the University of Derby, University of Manchester, University of Birmingham and Harvard Business School covered a wide range of topics, including using film making in research (Professor Finola Kerrigan), eye-tracking techniques for understanding consumer behaviour in online clothes retail settings (Dr Helen McCormick and Dr Rosy Boardman), use of the Zaltman Metaphorical Elicitation Technique (ZMET) and its application in services marketing (Dr Charles Hancock and Professor Carley Foster). The event closed with a guest appearance via video link of Emeritus Professor Gerald Zaltman, who spoke about ZMET and its applications.

ZMET is a research technique that uses images selected by participants to aid an in-depth interview about a specific topic. The technique aims to get to the deeper motivations and feelings that we have, rather than skimming the surface in the way an online survey might do. The idea is that discussion of the images will lead to participants revealing more about themselves than they would do in a standard interview. The technique is very structured, with a number of stages, and can be very time consuming but those who use it say it does what it promises and leads to deeper insights.

During the training session, we used ZMET to explore our feelings about the UK high street. This is how it worked. Before the event we were all asked to find three images that depicted how we felt about the UK high street. I chose a picture of some tumbleweed blowing down an empty street, a room festooned in cobwebs and a huge empty warehouse. (You don’t have to dig very deep to find out how I feel about the high street!) Then we worked in pairs to interview each other about our images – why that image? What does it show? What does it describe? How does it make you feel? Why might be just out of sight, round the corner? What’s missing from the picture? Why these colours? Why this particular image of whatever-it-is rather than another? If you could be in the picture, how would it smell or taste? What textures could you feel? These are just example questions, but you can see the idea – to explore each picture in as much detail and depth as possible. In a ZMET interview you would record the speech and then transcribe it for analysis. The analysis is of the qualitative data transcribed from the interview; the images are just the means to that end. The transcripts can run into thousands of words.

But there is another stage to ZMET that we did not have time to do in the session. The participant works with the researcher (or someone with the appropriate technological skills) to arrange the images in a digital collage. This is led by the participant, who is asked to specify whether images should be in the foreground or background, bigger or smaller, left or right, top or bottom, near to others or away from them, etc. so that the collage becomes a representation of all the ideas that have been discussed in the interview. This gives a visual representation of the relative importance of each image but is of little value to the research process. It is, on the other hand, of interest to the commercial clients who pay for researchers to use the technique, as it is a bit like a visual executive summary of each interview. The collages are often colourful and engaging artworks in their own right, while encapsulating how an individual feels about your brand/product/service.

The big question of the day, for me, was when someone asked whether ZMET was ‘a bit gimmicky’. The proponents of the technique defended it well, but the question still hung in the air. In the end, ZMET is a bit gimmicky. It’s a long process led by visuals and has a collage thrown in the middle that doesn’t feel necessary to the research, the individual responses are difficult to analyse using only the images… Yet it is the transcripts of the interviews that are the real data for analysis, not the images. It almost doesn’t matter which images are chosen by participants, because it’s how those images are used to get to the deeper values and metaphors in the interview that is important. For example, different participants might choose images of cake, biscuits, a bowl of sugar and a bag of sweets to demonstrate that something is ‘sweet’ and the interviewer then probes into that idea of being ‘sweet’. It doesn’t matter how you get there as long as the process is the same for each participant, is clearly and methodically practised and the data is analysed objectively.

ZMET is by no means the only visual method used for research – and maybe I’ll muse on this another day – but it has a certain appeal for some qualitative researchers. Those researchers must be ready to explain to those who approach research from a positivist position how the data is obtained, that it is valid, and that the method is robust.

For more about ZMET and other visual methods try these sources

Hancock, C. and Foster, C. (2019) Exploring the ZMET methodology in services marketing, Journal of Services Marketing, 34(1), 48–58, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/JSM-11-2018-0344

Hancock, C. and Longbottom, D. (2017) Market sensing using images and emotional scaling, Alternative Market Research Methods: market sensing, Abingdon: Routledge, pp.51–95.

Kerrigan, F. and Hart, A. (2016) Theorising digital personhood: a dramaturgical approach, Journal of Marketing Management, 32(17-18), 1701-21, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2016.1260630

Zaltman, G. and Zaltman, L. (2008) Marketing Metaphoria: what deep metaphors reveal about the minds of consumers, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zaltman, G. (2003) How Customers Think: essential insights into the mind of the market, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

2 thoughts on “Musings on visual methods

  1. Great to see a post on ZMET and your thoughts about its application. I’m pleased that the session was helpful too. Thank you very much for sharing the paper. I just need to add something to the conversation to shed further light on the montage stage, I think the use of the term ‘gimmick’ in reference to the visual executive summary (VES) misrepresents the montage element. (But it’s good to raise this, as many traditional researchers may not relate to the weird and wonderful montages produced) The VES is the pinnacle of representing the participants thoughts, the participant decides where Individual images should be placed and what size the image should be and how it sits in relation to the other images. The montage of images is very valuable in capturing the collection of thoughts and then visually summarising them in the form of a new image, what Professor Zaltman terms a snapshot of the minds eye. The saying of ‘a pictures says a 1000 words‘ couldn’t be more true- so when 6-8 images are montaged together it represents – 6-8000 words. The participant gets a sense of closure from this part of the interview as it brings all their thoughts together in one place. I’ve found that many participants after being interview say this part is very therapeutic like a mental jigsaw puzzle coming together. So to sum up, the montage is a very important step of the process and oddly was the one thing that sparked my curiosity with the methodology. So my advice to the curious researcher is to read about ZMET and practice, practice, practice – It really does take time and skill to be a master of the technique. Thanks for bringing ZMET to the attention of the potential academic users!

    Liked by 1 person

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