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Using projective techniques in online qual

Published 01 Dec 2021 5 minute read

Online qual

Projective techniques are a go-to tool for the qualitative researcher. Why? Because they are designed to reveal the hidden, or unknowingly masked, thoughts and feelings that drive so many key choices and behaviours. 

Typically they rely on using deliberately ambiguous stimuli that encourages unique interpretation and expression. This helps participants tap into, explore and share the important decision processes that are unconsciously present whenever they interact with a product, brand or service...

All in all, pretty useful you might say...

Speed up your research - get your copy of our ready-to-use projective exercises templates to use in your online qual projects today click here.

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What are Projectives?

Projectives are typically categorised as a form of personality test, and are a tool derived from the wonderful world of psychology.

They are designed to help explore the emotions, drivers or conflicts a person might experience but which remain hidden from view. By ‘hidden’ we mean ‘emotion or drivers’ which are not top of mind, immediately conscious or part of our standard awareness’. This is often described as system 1 & 2. The chief premise of system 1 and 2 thinking is that humans are not entirely rational beings, and that many of our decisions and behaviours are guided by urges and protocols that operate ‘under the surface’.

Watch the demo and see how you can use projective technique exercises in our online qual platform, Together™ click here.

The goal of projective techniques

Projective techniques have been used for decades within qualitative research to uncover the underlying thoughts, needs, attitudes and emotions that participants in market research struggle to verbalise. They are an excellent tool for exploring the human psyche and its motivations. Their purpose is to help people uncover what lies just beyond their immediate awareness, but which still influences them.

The reality is, some concepts, behaviours or constructs are not easy to tackle with straightforward questions or responses. Indeed, the challenge for any great researcher is working with participants to find a way to help them, in a way that best suits their individual experience and expression ability, to share the insights they have tucked away inside their brains.

Participants in market research, much like the real world, don’t always know the reasons behind their choices, behaviours or preferences. Often they have an ‘inkling’ but they are not always able to bring them into focus consciously or easily, so projective techniques offer stimulus to trigger unconscious thoughts and feelings. Market researchers use a variety of projective exercises and techniques to aid them in identifying these unconscious thoughts.

Why use projective techniques?

Projectives tap into a different part of our brain where responses are not so influenced by self-performance or social desirability, and instead align with thought processes and patterns that map more closely onto the same decision-making process that we regularly rely on in our everyday lives.

Projectives help cut through the clutter and the noise that is often present even with the most transparent and communicative research participant. Below are 7 key reasons to use projective techniques in your online qualitative research, projectives can:

  • Keep respondents engaged and interested to encourage their participation
  • Offer participants a new, and sometimes easier method, of sharing internal feelings and thoughts
  • Move participants away from self-reported verbals to more reactive action-based expression
  • Reduce or control bias
  • Provide additional insight into respondents' personalities, viewpoints, and thoughts about the topic
  • Differentiate a brand by highlighting similarities and differences
  • To enable respondents to describe their experience, thoughts and feelings more vividly

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Types of projective techniques

Below we dive into the types of projective techniques most commonly used in online qualitative research.

  1. Word Association or Associative learning
  2. Sentence/Story Completion or Completion Technique
  3. Photo/Picture Sorts or Choice/ordering technique
  4. Brand Personalities or Expressive Techniques
  5. The construction techniques

1. Word Association or Associative learning: A method where participants are presented with a word and asked to identify the first word that comes to their minds. This helps the researcher capture a participants instant reactions, personal connections, and develop an understanding of the language they use. It can be used to gain feedback on new brand names and attributes, concepts, products or ideas. Often this technique is visualised as a word cloud, where the size of the word represents the number of times it was mentioned.

2. Sentence/Story Completion or Completion Technique: This is an enhanced version of word association. Participants are given a sentence or story that contains a blank, and are asked to fill in the missing word or words. The activity is designed to be completed quickly, so that participants have little chance to rationalise their response and for researchers to capture their most authentic reactions. This method encourages creative thinking and provide a rich vein of insight.

3. Photo/Picture Sorts or Choice/ordering technique - This technique is particularly helpful for visual thinkers. Participants are provided with visual cues - images, photos, emoticons etc and are asked to pick and/or rank which one most represents what they think of a brand or an attribute. The emoji technique allows respondents to illustrate how they feel about various concepts or experiences without the need to verbalise their feelings.

4. Brand Personalities or Expressive Techniques: This exercise can be used in branding studies to better understand a brand's perceived personality. By asking participants to personify and describe various characteristics of their "personality," it is possible to identify unique traits or characteristics to differentiate a brand or product. These insights allow marketers to define language, tone and aesthetic that emotionally engages the target audience users with your message. In online qual this is achieved effectively through showing a range of potential options and asking people to engage with the ones that resonate in the context of the brand or posed question.

5. The construction techniques - Here participants are required to do more than react, they have to create something from the shown stimuli. Participants are shown cards containing images and are then asked to make up stories based on what they see. The storyline and plot are then used to make inferences about the deep-seated desires and needs of the respondent.

Strengths and weaknesses of projective techniques

Projective techniques are not without their problems. One of the biggest complaints (at least historically) about using projectives is that the style of responses given by participants could vary hugely and that the method of testing was not easily standardised. While their use in the academic psychological world has diminished in the last decade, they remain a ‘go-to’ tool in the forensic and market research world. And, for the reasons outlined below, online qual is a great vehicle for projective exercises as in its application it also helps standardise responses and thereby improving their reliability.

However, for completeness we’ve highlighted below some of the main objections and weaknesses of projective techniques:


  • Good at tackling bias
  • Put relatively low strain on participants while providing a new sometimes easier, method of sharing/highlighting internal feelings
  • Place us in the middle ground of the ‘Say Do’ gap
  • Good at unearthing thought processes and patterns that align more closely with the same decision-making process that we use in our day-to-day experiences


  • Projective tests can have issues with variability and reliability
  • Highly interpretative
  • Not easily standardised

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Benefits of using projective techniques in online qual

Online qualitative research and research communities lend themselves particularly well to the use of projective techniques. Since online qual makes use of software based interactive components, projectives can be created and delivered in a way that:

  • Ensures they are structured and tested in exactly the same way (i.e. standardised)
  • The responses gathered are spontaneous and expressive (as they should be to qualify as a projective)
  • Provides a semi-structured approach, which makes their analysis far easier and comparable

This means that you can take advantage of the benefits of projective testing and do so in a way that is efficient (for both you as a researcher & for your participants).

Dos & don'ts of using projectives in online qualitative research

Before you rush off to start your first online qualitative study using projective techniques, let’s just recap on some of the most important do’s and don’ts of using projective techniques in online qualitative research.


  • Use ambiguous stimulus
  • Reduce response time
  • Use something (ideally structured) that moves the onus away from verbal or processed responses
  • Talk confidently to clients about how they can help you surface emotions and drivers that drive key decision-making behaviour


  • Use them in isolation, they are an effective part of a whole tool-box
  • Don’t provide so much information respondents are tempted to rationalise the exercise but also don’t provide so little that respondents don’t feel confident enough to fully contribute
  • Resist the temptation to over-analyse and make deductive leaps that the participants' projections don’t support
  • Think small! Many offline tests can easily be recreated (some even more effectively) in an online context.

Looking for inspiration for your next research project why not check out our free activity templates which include a range of activities, from warm-ups and ice-breakers, to deep cultural immersion projects designed to surface those elusive insights. 

And if you need help designing your research or understanding how you can best use projectives within your research community, then drop us a line - we're only too happy to help.

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