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Semiotics and qual... so close and yet so far...

Semiotics and qual... so close and yet so far...


Semiotics and qual research… so close and yet so far…

Semiotics and qual research involve two quite different skill sets, but both are essentially forms of research that rely on a healthy dose of subjectivity. In both disciplines, we use analysis and interpretation to get to our outputs. (As you probably already know… Semiotics in the commercial world, is a way of decoding culture and brands, uncovering meaning and providing context for the world in which people live.)

The challenge for clients seems to be marrying the findings of qual and semiotics studies when they can be quite divergent. This article offers thoughts as to why the two approaches are not naturally seamless and some suggestions on how to address this.

Why are qual and semiotics not naturally seamless?

People and culture operate differently…

When we talk to people in qual, their responses are heavily coloured by the past, their personal context. We know from academic research that our brains reference what has happened before, our ‘Book Of Life’, when considering an idea/ new product etc. Our brains are riddled with confirmation bias – always on the look-out for information that supports what we already believe and ignoring facts to the contrary. Understandably, clients watching groups or online forums can sometimes find this ‘conservatism’ frustrating but it acts as an important reminder of the effort and ingenuity that’s required to change hearts, minds and ultimately behaviour.

Yes, semiotic cultural insight does investigate the ‘now’ of culture and reveal dominant codes and themes. But, it is often prized for its ability to identify what is emerging in the cultural, category or brand context. And rightly so, this is the ‘gold’ that semiotics can dig up. It offers clients a glimpse into the future, or perhaps more accurately, a range of possible futures for their categories and brands or the cultures in which they play. By looking at the niches at the leading edge, clients can see a range of directions in which they could take their brands/ NPD/ communications. Clearly, many of these niches will never make it to the mass market and will sail away into obscurity. But some will be winners. Some of the niches will become dominant themes that capture the interest of tomorrow’s consumers and make companies a lot of money.

An ABC of how semiotics is done

We believe that qual can ensure that clients have a good steer as to which of the niches show signs of success and failure. But, herein lies the challenge… how do we get people, who tend toward conservatism, and semiotic cultural insight, which tends toward future possibilities, to come together and ‘make sense’?

The answer, at least in part, could be… conducting a special kind of qual that gets people to think differently, consider acting differently, takes them out of their comfort zone and into possible futures. Left to our own devices, us humans may default to referring to what’s happened before, but we are perfectly capable of contemplating the new, something different. Hell, we can even be excited by it.

We have to ensure that we talk to the right people, introduce them to ideas in the right way, help them develop greater awareness of their current behaviour and what it would take to get them to change.

How to create a seamless research programme

It’s a good idea to do the semiotics first. There is a temptation to do semiotics and qual at the same time to be more efficient, but knitting the two together at the end can be really challenging for the reasons already laid out. If the semiotics goes first, it can guide/ input into the qual so that the whole research programme takes the client further forward.


If we want to explore future possibilities with participants, we need to get people who are

  1. close to the leading edge
  2. happy to use their imagination and do some crystal-ball gazing

  1. Getting close to the leading edge: Semiotics can often identify where the ‘right’ kind of people are likely to be found. The kind of AI that semioticians are now using can tell us the geographical location of people who are interested in products/ services/ categories/ ideas/ issues etc. using search engine data. Real world fieldwork allows semioticians to observe who goes where… which cities/ venues/ spaces etc. This can give us a steer on where to find the right people.
    Real world fieldwork also allows semioticians to observe people, giving us a steer on how we might identify specific types of people… e.g. do they all wear the same brand of trainers? Are they a particular demographic etc? Some of this will certainly find its way into the semiotics findings, but qual researchers might want to interrogate the semioticians just to make sure.
    In reality, the people at the leading edge, can be REALLY hard to find. So there may have to be some compromise. Getting as close to the leading edge as possible will help. And beyond that, making sure recruitment is centred around people who are imaginative and future focused in their thinking.
  1. Participants who are willing and able to use their imagination and do some crystal-ball gazing; We can employ recruitment questions like… ‘how much do you use your imagination on a daily basis? For example, dreaming about what you’d like your life to be, imagining different outcomes for people, making up stories in your head, having creative thoughts… And just to make double sure they are the right kind of people, at Qual Street, the researcher gives participants a call once recruited to make sure they are what we’re looking for and start setting up their expectations for a ‘creative’ session

Running sessions that help people with creativity and future thinking…

The world of research has been using the language of System 1 and System 2 thinking for quite a while, System 1 being spontaneous, short-cut decision-making and System 2 more considered and rational decision-making. But, now we’re exploring System 3 thinking which is the mental ability to imagine the future and evaluate how happy you will be in it – based on how pleasurable the process of imagining itself is. It is this System 3 thinking that we need to tap into when looking at emergent ideas.

Here are a few things we know work well to get people into a System 3 way of thinking…

  1. Holding the session in a creative space can help set the tone
  2. Priming, getting people into a creative state by playing creativity games and opening up their minds (a bit like warming up before exercise, ready to go)… as well as objective sharing. This is all about creating energy and fun in the room before embarking on an exploration of ideas
  3. Creative me… giving people space within sessions for personal reflection and tapping into ‘introvert energy’. We can do this by asking people to spend quiet time thinking through ideas and doing some imagination exercises on their own (and then feeding back to the group)
  4. Creative us…In the opposite way creating bonding group exercises by helping people to identify together and work on exercises to bring very different perspectives

Stimulus material that genuinely stimulates response…

Territories/ concepts

The semiotics mapping can be work-shopped into territories/ concepts for research. This material can be expressed in words but is also typically highly visual and includes brands and comms as markers of cultural meaning.

Stimulating the senses

Going beyond ‘boards’, using materials which work with all our senses can help people to get into a heightened state where creativity comes more naturally. Music, art, spoken word, descriptive or poetic language, drama etc. can be used in this way.

A topic guide that goes further

The findings of semiotics can make for a fuller topic guide, with areas to probe that the researcher might not otherwise have thought of. For example, semiotics might identify a code within a print ad which aligns the ad to the publishing industry. If the ad is for a pharmaceutical company and how they are addressing a particular medical condition, this may not be helpful. Taking the ad into qual research, the moderator can look out for issues around relevance and connection to the world of medicine. Or if the participant says something like… “It looks like they’re talking to academics, not people like me”… the researcher will understand where that take-out might be coming from.

Where does all of this get us?

Clearly, the desired end point is a synthesis of both pieces of research where the client can clearly see the links and connections. With a ‘future focused’ piece of qual, the job of integrating the two will be much easier and the risk of the qual remaining in the ‘dominant’ and not being able to validate the ‘emergent’ is greatly reduced.

If you’d like to know more about how semiotics and qual can be integrated, please get in touch

Claire, Kath and Ambreen


Kath Rhodes, Qual Street Owner

I love love learning and so I invest time and resources with Ambreen and Claire into exploring social psychology, neuro science, creativity and new techniques in research. Read all about it and help yourself to the ideas that will deliver your business the insight it needs

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