How do workers experience returning to work after an on-the-job injury? How does a single-mother experience taking her child to the doctor? What is a tourist’s experience on his first visit to Colorado?
These research questions could all be answered by phenomenology, a research approach that describes the lived experience. While not a specific method of research, phenomenology is a series of assumptions that guide research tactics and decisions.Phenomenological research is uncommon in traditional market research, but that may be due to little awareness of it rather than its lack of utility. (However, UX research, which follows many phenomenological assumptions, is quickly gaining popularity). If you have been conducting research, but feel like you are no longer discovering anything new, then a phenomenology approach may shed some fresh insights.
Phenomenology is a qualitative research approach. It derives perspectives defined by experience and context, and the benefit of this research is a deeper and/or boarder understanding of these perspectives. To ensure perspectives are revealed, rather than prescribed, phenomenology avoids abstract concepts. The research doesn’t ask participants to justify their opinions or defend their behaviors. Rather, it investigates the respondents’ own terms in an organic way, assuming that people do not share the same interpretation of words or labels.
In market research, phenomenology is usually explored by unstructured, conversational interviews. Additional data, such as observing behavior (e.g., following a visitor’s path through a welcome center), can supplement the interviews. Interview questions typically do not ask participants to explain why they do, feel, or think something. These “why” questions can cause research participants to respond in ways that they think the researcher wants to hear, which may not be what’s in their head or heart. Instead, phenomenology researchers elicit stories from research participants by asking questions like “Can you tell me an example of when you…?” or, “What was it like when…?” This way, the researcher seeks and values context equally with the action of the experience.
The utility of this type of research may not be obvious at first. Project managers and decision makers may conclude the research project with a frustrating feeling of “now what?” This is a valid downside of phenomenological research. On the other hand, this approach has the power to make decision makers and organization leaders rethink basic assumptions and fundamental beliefs. It can reveal how reality manifests in very different ways.
A phenomenology study is not appropriate in all instances. But it is a niche option in our research arsenal that might best answer the question you are asking. As always, which research approach you use depends on your research question and how you want to use the results.