KS&R Blogs


I have always been interested in the paraphernalia of other people's lives. Which means that flea markets are my "happy place", the best place to score...well, pretty much anything. When traveling abroad, flea markets are a great place to learn about the area's history and culture. Currently on assignment in London, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Old Spitalfields Market. There has been a market on this site for over 350 years. Bliss.

My joy in collecting these objects (a few of my prized finds are shown in the photos) frustrates my husband, who literally groans, "Where are you going to put this stuff?!"

I argue that these things are much more than merely "stuff" -- they are artifacts. Anthropologists define artifacts as things that people make and consume in a culture that signal something important about the behavior taking place at the time. Every object tells a story of how life is lived -- the demands, what people value, what inspires them, their tastes. Our choices go to the core of who we are.

We often include an examination of artifacts when we use an ethnographic approach in qualitative research. (Collecting multiple types of data is one of the strengths of ethnographic market research.) This examination can be very revealing. In a study KS&R conducted with consumers who stated a commitment to a gluten-free diet, the observed garbage data included a soggy box of Cocoa Pebbles cereal and empty packages of Ball Park Franks!

Artifacts can also be employed in contextual interviewing, with the interviewer adopting the role of a naive outsider. This is highly effective in eliciting information and insights that might otherwise be overlooked:

  • Much of the information stored in our brains is visual, and needs an assist to surface before it can be articulated.
  • Memories are fluid and can be distorted over time. Artifacts help increase the accuracy of recall, as the object reinstates the context and heightens our awareness of our behavior.

Here's a case study illustrating artifacts in qualitative action:

The Challenge: A luxury brand jewelry manufacturer with a long legacy was experiencing a global slump in sales as millennial women are much less attracted to traditional, classic jewelry than their mothers and grandmothers.

In order to counteract the trend and create a strong, vigorous demand for their product, the manufacturer was considering a dramatic extension of the product line. A key objective was to reinvent the brand, from "formal" and "proper", to "fun" and "fabulous" with a fresh, youthful vibe. There was a great deal of uncertainty, however, regarding the positioning, messaging, and brand impact.

The Approach: In the discovery phase, KS&R conducted in-depth interviews with young women to understand the triggers (functional and emotional) for investing in luxury jewelry. Participants were asked to bring items from their personal jewelry collections (e.g., most prized; a "regret" purchase; a surprise delighter), as well as photos, videos, diaries, clothing and other accessories, memorabilia, etc. surrounding the occasions when they purchased and wore these pieces.

The women told very rich stories about their behavior and feelings, as the artifacts helped re-establish the context and allowed time for the chain of associations (positive and negative) to form. The artifacts were also instrumental in drawing out subtle but highly valuable insights into the retail experience at the client's boutique stores.

The Outcome: The research findings identified ways to strengthen the positioning and messaging to ensure they were relevant, compelling and differentiating for the target market. The in-store experiences the women shared helped to further optimize the launch of the new product line.

As qualitative researchers, we know there are real limits to self-awareness. Most consumers do not have a full understanding of their decision making process -- even if they think they do! Artifacts hold a great deal of that information, waiting to be revealed.