Ipsos Encyclopedia - Projective Techniques

Aka Enabling Techniques - At the very heart of qualitative research, projective and enabling techniques bring alive the power of the craft through fun games and exercises.


​At the very heart of qualitative research, projective and enabling techniques bring alive the power of the craft through fun games and exercises. These techniques are used to get beyond respondents' rational responses and unlock the emotional. They allow moderators to inject new energy into a research session, adjust its mood and tone in a way that makes sense to respondents.

This is particularly important in respect of understanding people and their relationship with brands. Real people in real life often feel more about brands (and experiences) than they think about them. Projective and enabing techniques allow us to access the emotional and intangible aspects of people and their relationships with brands in meaningful ways.

Broadly, projective and enabling  techniques have their origins in clinical and experimental psychology but have been appropriately modified to fit the realities of consumer qualitative research.

We use them to access the real, private world of people and to achieve a level of descriptive and diagnostic understanding directly from the informant.

The distinction between projective and enabling techniques is arguably a spurious one – they both aim to encourage a deeper exploration of a respondent's feelings about a product, brand or experience.

However, if a distinction is to be made it can best be described as this:  

  • projective techniques are typically about creating something (and this can be abstract)
  • enabling techniques are about doing something

Use & interpretation

The use and interpretation of these techniques is typically conducted 'live' with the respondent in a focus group or depth interview.

The respondent is asked to conduct the exercise themselves and then encouraged to interpret the outcome in a way that makes sense to them.

Tasks are usually simple to adminster with the modertor explaining what's required. This helps to remove any anxiety on the part of the respondent and to shape the expectations of the outcome.

Moderators often introduce projective and enabling techniques as 'games' and seek group consensus to proceed – making sure everyone understands what's expected and is comfortable to continue.

When to use?

Projective and enabling techniques should only be introduced after the group has 'formed' and is 'performing' (working) well together.

Typically focus group dynamics have four core elements (forming, storming, norming, performing/working, and then ending with 'mourning').

Formed and 'performing/working' groups are characterised by high comfort levels, corresponding low respondent anxiety, and a desire to contribute, listen and share. This should be achieved within a 20 minute timeframe from the start of a group/depth interview (it could be slightly faster or slower depending on the nature of the group and the subject matter to be discussed).

Once these characteristics are noted, respondents are more likely to share or 'trade' personal disclosures without fear or embarassment. Respondents can see how much they have in common around a subject area and feel confident in disclosing/revealing more about their private selves in respect of products, brands and experiences.

They can also be used tactically in order to re-energise a group or inject a new sense of purpose and momentum.

Generally projective and enabling techniques can be used in both a collective or group environment and in a singular or depth interview environmnent.

Caveats & learning

Not all projective and enabling  techniques work well in all situations. Therefore it's imperative that the practitioner considers a variety of techniques to cover a particular reearch issue. If one technique doesn't work, try something different.

Introducing projective and enabling techniques in a confident and clear manner  is critical to success. Keep this short and simple. Make sure everyone is comfortable and reassured. It could be as simple as "Let's do something a little different. Let's play a game. I want you to imagine that Coca-Cola comes to life as a real person and walks through that door. Describe them to me."

Be careful about pacing projective and enabling techniques to match the energy levels and  the different stages of the group detailed above.

Some techniqies seek to understand structures (for example in packaging) to understand similarities and differences.

Others present people with materials that we encourage them to react to (for example a 'personality or mood' board) for a new car – this could then lead to collective discussion.

More complex techniques may require respondents to write a brand obituary or a brand love letter or draw their feelings about an experience or brand e.g. "please draw what it's like to fly transatlantic in economy class on XXXX airline." These are useful techniques to nudge respondents out of their comfort zone and consider things from a different perspective.

Be aware that some respondents will feel more confident and comfortable when invited to participate in projective and enabling techniques. Be aware of obvious cues both in terms of spoken words and body language which signal respondent discomfort. For example "I'm not creative like that".

However if introduced in a fun and informal manner with expectations clearly set by the moderator ("I'm not expecting a masterpiece"), the vast majority will quickly and easily take to the task.

In the rare occasions they don't, allow respondents to opt out and move on.

Presenting projective & enabling technique findings

Presenting materials and showing how respondents 'map' a market, personify a brand or deconstruct packaging elements can help us quickly illuminate issues in a unique and engaing way.

Bringing original materials to the client presentation is recommended – allowing the client to experience the respondent generated content themselves is powerful and engaging.

Moreover clients can gain a more holistic understanding of real people and their relationship with their category and brand. They also easily point to the complexity of real people and real life.

Ipsos Point Of View:

Projective and enabling techniques lend themselves particualrly well to the Ipsos UU point of view.

At Ipsos UU we conduct Hot and Cold research with Real People in Real LifeReal People in Real Life can't always easily express what they think or feel. Yet people often feel more about things than they think about them.

Hot & Cold research allows us to jolt people out of auto-pilot and unearth these feelings. (Hot) projective and enabling techniques help people to unlock the unconscious and to access feelings in simple ways that makes intuitive sense.

Hot is instinctive, intuitive and unconscious.

Projective techniqies are 'Hot' as they're all about instictint and spontaneity, they're intuitive and unconscious. Asking people to personify a brand as a real person is a simple, intuitive exercise that unlocks an array of emotional associations. It's fun and easy to achieve.

Projectives can be broadly clustered into three groups reflecting the nature of the activity:

  • Exploring relationships: (patterns of relationships, between products or brands
  • Completion exercises: giving respondents partial materials to complete such as thought bubbles or sentence completion exercises
  • Creative exercises: a wide range of exercises that rely on creativity per se – projective questioning to complex role-playing and psych-drawing, creating collages and ideation around new products

However, we have to marry what we uncover in 'Hot' and make sense of it. This is what we define as 'Cold.'

Cold is rational, reasoned, logical and intelligent. (Cold) projective and enabling techniques are the interpretation, uncovering the meaning behind what we're seen and heard.

Cold is the the interpretation of Hot.

Interpretation is best achieved using the participants' explanation of what they've created or described. Here we can further probe the meaning of their thoughts and feelings and seek links between logical and emotional content.

Recommended readings:

Qualitative Market Research, A Practitioners and Buyers Guide – Wendy Gordon and Roy Langmaid (Gower Press)

Qualitative Research, Good Decision Making through understanding people, culture and markets – Sheila Keegan

AQR – Qualitative Research Techniques

Consumer & Shopper