Qualitative research aims to understand the “why”. As researchers, we often try to dig deeper into the attitudes, behaviors, and opinions of an individual or an organization and uncover the reasons behind them. However, people often do not have a firm understanding of their behaviors and may not be aware of the reasons behind them. Projective research techniques, also known as habilitation techniques, are methods that qualified researchers can use to access participants’ deep motivations and attitudes.

Projective research techniques are derived from clinical psychology, and many remain rooted in this discipline. For example, the Rorschach ink stain test is one of the best known. It consists of showing the subjects images of ink spots and analyzing their perceptions to determine their personalities and mental states.

Trained moderators typically incorporate projective techniques into their qualitative research to uncover participants’ hidden thoughts. Projective techniques have their origin in the field of psychology, in the line of the Rorschach ink stain and thematic aperception tests. Qualitative researchers have adapted these approaches for use in the field of market research.

Goals are questions or exercises designed to uncover people’s deepest feelings about a topic. They are purposely posed to ask key questions indirectly. They are not intended to replace the mind’s answers to direct questions, but can provide information that is not obtained with traditional questions. Projective techniques are used to gain a deep understanding of emotional needs, barriers, and motivators.

Projective Research Techniques in Methodology

Word association tests

This technique is quick, easy to manage and is frequently used in advertising research and the qualities associated with the brand name. Typically, between 50 and 100 words are given to the respondent and asked to respond with the right word that comes to mind without much thought. The analysis of matching words gives the clue as to whether a particular word can be used for its intended purposes.

Test of completing sentences

This method is often used to develop hypotheses and in the elaboration of questionnaires. In this technique, the respondent is given an incomplete sentence and asked to complete it. On the same topic several sentences can be served. They are analyzed to know the opinions of the respondents. This technique is an extension of the word association test. It can pose problems when it comes to managing it in multidimensional responses.

Proof of completing a story

In this case, the respondent receives a story focused on the topic studied and is asked to complete it. Inferences are made from the answers.

Verbal projection tests

Here the motivations of the respondent are extracted from their verbal reactions to the actions of the other.

Pictorial techniques

One technique that has been particularly effective for us is a derivation of thematic perception tests. Distribute images to the table and ask each person to select the image that best represents how they feel about ______ (insert the topic being discussed). Next, each participant shares why they have chosen the image and how it represents how they feel about ______. The images provided are abstract on purpose and can have different meanings. For example, someone might reply, “This is a picture of a bridge to nowhere, although for me it shows optimism. I see the _____ organization as an organization that takes on challenges and works to be creative. They can easily turn this bridge to nowhere into a great opportunity.” The following are some of the pictorial techniques:

Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT)

The respondent is provided with a set of images, some clear and some ambiguous. From their description of the images, inferences are made about the attitude and motives of the respondent.

Rorschach Test

Respondents are provided with symmetrical but meaningless ink smudge cards (10 in number) previously printed. Their responses, described in their own way, are analyzed on the basis of a predetermined psychological framework.

Rosenzweig Test

Respondents are given cartoon images with an empty balloon on top, asking them to fill in the balloon space with their own words. On the basis of their response, inferences are made.

Holtzman Ink Stain Test (HIT)

It is an improvement of the Rorschach test. Here 45 ink stain papers based on color, movement and shading are used. Only one response is obtained per card from the subject. It is interpreted at three levels of adequacy. From this, the “accuracy” (F) and “inaccuracy” (F-) of the respondents’ perceptions are estimated. The respondent’s affective and emotional needs are determined from their color and shade options. Dynamic aspects are evaluated from movement responses.

Tomkins-Horn Image Sort Test (THPAT)

Twenty-five sequential sheets containing sketches are used in this method. Respondents are asked to order the sequence of these pictures according to their perception and based on their reasoning. The answers are analysed on the basis of certain rules of interpretation. They are often used for group management.

Gaming techniques

Manipulation games are administered to respondents and asked to play freely. The way they organize and play will be the basis for knowing their emotional traits and intensities. The doll play test given to children is one of these techniques.

Tests, tests and exams

Skills, memorization ability are measured using different formats and methods.


It is a newly developed technique to study respondents’ motives and describe the social relationship between individuals, including acceptances and repulsions. For this, sociogram graphs are used that highlight sociometric options. According to Giles, this attempts to trace the flow of information between the groups and then examines the ways of disseminating the new ideas. Sociograms are built to identify leaders and followers

Mind map

This is a great exercise to start a focus group. Each participant receives a mind map with a word (or phrase) related to the topic in the center. Instead of directly asking what they like about a particular topic, ask participants to write down as many words and phrases as they think about that topic. Be sure to add that this could include anything good or bad, including your thoughts, feelings, senses, associations, impressions, images, and preferences. This approach picks up a much wider range of answers and often uncovers topics that would not have been discussed when only asked what they like about a particular topic.


Another successful technique for understanding how people really feel about something is to ask them to describe life without that brand, product, or service. This can be as informal as asking participants to share how they would feel if they were deprived of that brand/product/service or you can ask them to write a compliment of the particular brand, product or service. This is a fun exercise that encourages people to think outside the box. With a little help, perhaps even with a form to fill out a phrase of praise, participants can easily describe how they would feel and what they would miss if that brand/product/service were to become unavailable.

Recall techniques allow us to better understand consumers’ relationship with brands and products away from them. This can be done hypothetically in focus groups (“for example, imagine life without…”). However, fantastic knowledge can be generated by making “withdrawal” a reality. This technique can be part of a larger ethnographic study: we would recruit people loyal to the product or brand advocates and encourage them to spend a period of time living without that brand or product, and ask them to record the experience through a journal, dictaphone or video. The results can be spectacular and allow us to know their relationship with brands and products and the role they play in their lives. This process can conclude with the convening of everyone who has had a “retired” product to share the experiences, either online or in a discussion group.

Bring an object…

This serves both as a preliminary task and as a projective technique. At the time of hiring, respondents are asked to bring to the group an object with which they associate or that makes them think about the brand in question. They are given a creative license. Mustard has used this technique recently when researching a range of multivitamins for children. Not only did it serve to warm up the group, setting the precedent for a creative session, but it also revealed a whole host of emotional ties to the brand.

The Planets (and Guided Fantasy)

The projective technique “Planets” involves respondents remaining silent. They are asked to close their eyes while the moderator guides them on an imaginary journey through space. From leaving Earth in their space capsule to returning at the end of the expedition, they are asked to reflect deeply on the experiences and emotions associated with a visit to “Planet Mark X.” For example: What does it look like?, How are people?, Are there buildings?, How do you feel?, What do you see/hear/smell?, Where are you going?, Who do you talk to? What do they tell you?, How do you feel about spending 6 months here?, How do you feel when you are asked to leave?

During the course of this “guided fantasy” you can visit other brands/planets and compare and contrast the atmosphere, how welcoming it feels, how much you enjoyed the visit, etc. At the end of the screening, the group takes notes and makes a report to the moderator or others. We believe this provides much deeper insight and more colorful descriptions of the customer relationship and/or experience.


Psychewings are usually sheets of paper prepared in advance, with men and women glued together and an empty speech or thought bubble. They are useful for capturing individual opinions on topics, and in particular the “how would this make you feel?” This is a very useful technique for respondents who, at first, might be reluctant to verbalize their own emotions to a group of strangers, since it also allows us to use the perspective of a third party, for example, “this is how I think most customers would react to this service experience”.

The Tree Men

The Treemen is another great example of using stimulus material to encourage respondents to reveal their feelings and emotions. Respondents may be shown pre-prepared drawings showing various characters living and interacting within an arboreal environment (climbing, falling, hugging, sleeping, etc.). Respondents can select the characters in the drawing that best represent what they (or someone else) might have felt in a given scenario. The information is generated not by writing down the individual character of the selected tree, but by asking the respondent to specifically understand why that character was selected over others.

Courtroom Drama

Mustard often uses the projective technique of “room theatre” when using focus groups to conduct proofs of concept and creative development projects. In most cases, participants are divided into teams and asked to use the above discussion and their own opinions to form a “case for” or “case against” of the customer that precedes one or more concepts or improvements of the service.

Several interesting twists can be added. For example, asking respondents to “defend the indefensible” by arguing in favor of concepts they initially criticized. Teams can be formed to balance the views of respondents who are more stubborn and vociferous in their opinions.

Role play

Mustard has most often used role-playing when conducting qualitative research projects on customer experience and customer journey. Role-playing can be daunting for some respondents (and, indeed, some moderators), but it’s worth introducing into focus groups for a number of reasons. Studying the specific language used by respondents when recreating (for example) very good or very bad customer service experiences can provide valuable information. It allows the “actors” to express their opinions, but you also have to ask the other members of the group to react and respond to the representation: for example, how would they have felt or how would they have reacted in that situation?

Brand personification and brand obituary

Within qualitative research, the personification of the brand is probably the one that most immediately comes to mind when considering projective techniques. It is certainly one of the most fun (both for customers and moderators and for respondents), but it can also be one of the most revealing. However, like all projectives, it has to be used properly and in the right context. Moderators should avoid making assumptions about what a “positive” and “negative” brand association is. In addition, all associations and personifications need to be “researched” as to what they mean to the brand in terms of how it displays those personalities and characteristics.

As a general rule, we often find that brand associations with cars (e.g., “which car brand does the X brand most resemble?”) typically provide information about the brand’s most functional attributes, and those related to performance and/or status. For example, brand association with restaurants usually provides information about the service attributes of the brand in question.

Brand Association with people

Brand association with people (e.g., “if brand X grew arms and legs and became a person, what kind of person would it be?”), is probably the best known and provides insight into the brand’s most emotional attributes, and is often used to develop a better understanding of the brand’s personality. Brands can be compared to celebrities, or “bespoke” personalities and characteristics can be built that align with the brand in question. Understanding their existence in the broader brand landscape is possible by extending this technique to “brands at a party.” Who would talk to whom, how would they interact, which brand would play what “role”?

To complete the circle, we can also conclude with a brand obituary: respondents are asked to write the obituary assuming the mark is “dead”, referencing the things it would be remembered for, who it would miss and why.

Time machine

The time machine is a technique we use to stimulate creativity and “future thinking” in the focus group environment. For example, participants in focus groups are asked to remember what children received for Christmas, for example, 30 years ago. Below, they talk briefly about what children receive today for Christmas, before brainstorming what they think children will receive for Christmas 30 years from now. This process is repeated to explore “the future” of any topic at hand.

Bulletin boards

As a group technique, idea boards can be time-consuming, but they are also very revealing. Respondents typically work in small groups to prepare a “visual manifestation” of the topic at hand, be it a brand, a service, or an “ideal” proposal. The key to success is to give respondents clear instructions and creative license (and no, it’s not a contradiction). I suggest that excellent examples of mood boards from other unrelated projects be saved for use as a creative stimulant.

It makes the times clear and provides all the possible “product” with which the mood board can be created: a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, fabrics, pens/colored pencils, glitter, etc. Circulate between groups as boards are built to check progress and clarify requirements. Importantly, this is a great opportunity to understand each person’s motivations for selecting individual items for the environment board.

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Bibliographic References

Aiken, L. R. (1989) Assessment of personality. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Mahmood, Z. (1988) The projective scene in the world at large: A blot on the landscape. British Journal of Projective Psychology, 33(2), 5467.

Tyler, B., Miller, K. (1986) The use of tests by psychologists: Report on a survey of British Psychological Society members. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 39, 405410.

You might also be interested in: Analyzing Primary Sources

Projective Research Techniques

Projective Research Techniques. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Eliott Reyna @eliottreyna

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