Blog, Moderation, Qualitative Research

Stimuli and Props

Bringing Stimuli into the Test Environment Creates Discussion and Momentum

As you think about the discussion guide for your next qualitative research project, beyond the exercises and techniques used to help respondents open up and create pacing of the material, consider the inclusion of props and stimuli as well. We often rely too heavily on respondents to have vast and thoughtful opinions about the subject matter to the point of believing that that alone will be able to carry the discussion to the depths we would like. But, often, even influencers or those we believe to be category experts have ‘memory loss’ or ‘creative blocks’ when they are asked to come up with new ideas, project into the future or even something we perceive to be as simple as telling us what they want. They usually draw blanks.

Here is where it’s super helpful to have several different props or stimuli to generate discussion. The point of the stimuli is to generate discussion, not necessarily to choose a winning idea or concept. In fact, this misconception is often what prevents clients from putting as many ideas into the environment as possible, including:

  • The concepts are finished enough or are too rudimentary such as cardboard prototypes
  • We don’t know if this idea is viable or feasible from a budget standpoint
  • It’s just a sketch on a piece of paper and doesn’t have detail

The fear is that the concepts will be eliminated by the research before they are developed. This fear is real if the research is used in that way, but qualitative research exploring concepts should be used to generate discussion and direction so that concepts can be further developed to be evaluated in another way.

Props and stimuli can also be used to bring part reality into a test environment so as to jog respondent memory when they are purchasing something so that they are not being asked to recall their behavior from weeks before. Try to remember what you had for dinner a week ago or what were the reasons you chose your last TV over 2 other brands. Unless it was extraordinary, you’re likely not to remember details of your experience that could be insightful to a product developer or creative.


  • Recreating racks of clothing like retail stores for a shopping exercise
  • Simulate a store environment or aisle at a familiar retailer with products
  • Exposing respondents to short visual stories in video, storyboards or sketches, to see which of several communication points and tone are compelling
  • Ask respondents to use the product, or competitive one, in the room: download and try an app, change a battery in a hearing aid, peel an orange, wash a load of laundry, style your hair