Each ZMET interview is a one-on-one discussion approximately two hours long. (This contrasts with an average "speaking time" in a focus group of approximately 10 to 12 minutes per participant.) In preparation for the interview, participants spend considerable time (approximately 2 to 5 hours) thinking about the topic and locating appropriate visual images. As a result of this pre-interview work, participants arrive for their in-depth interview at an advanced stage of thinking, ready to discuss their thoughts and feelings.
The technique is based, in part, on the fact that most human communication is nonverbal, much of which is visual. ZMET findings are also consistent with research showing that people use sensory experience to make decisions and to express abstract ideas. This indicates that sensory images are important media of communication.
The ZMET interview employs several steps to surface and further define consumers1 key thoughts and feelings. Each step in ZMET provides a different opportunity for identifying and understanding metaphors, thereby gaining a deep understanding about consumers. The use of multiple steps also increases the likelihood of uncovering an important idea that might be missed by more narrowly focused techniques. At the same time, each step provides validation of ideas from other steps, a process known as convergent validity. That is, redundancy adds confidence about the validity and importance of the ideas being expressed. The central steps of the interview procedure are described below. The pictures shown are from a project on "privacy" conducted in Japan.
Storytelling about Pictures
During this step, participants describe how each picture they brought to the interview represents their thoughts and feelings about "privacy." Because much of our knowledge and memory takes the form of stories, stories are excellent sources of metaphors and important sources of insight about participants. In the process of telling a story about the pictures, with occasional probing by specially trained interviewers, rich insights emerge. Special probing techniques are used to explore why key ideas are relevant to the participant.
We also ask participants if there were important ideas they wanted to express but for which they could not find relevant images. When this happens, the interviewer explores the kind of image that might represent those thoughts and feelings.
The Triad Task
The triad task seeks to identify concepts and distinctions at a higher level. The interviewer asks the participant to examine three pictures selected at random by the interviewer and to indicate how any two pictures are similar, but different from the third, with regard to the topic. For example, the participant might have said that two pictures were similar because they reflect feelings about closeness, while the third picture represents protection. The interviewer probes, with "laddering" techniques, the reasons these distinctions are relevant to the participant.
Metaphor Probe/Expand the Frame
ZMET employs several other probing techniques to encourage participants to elaborate their thoughts and feelings more deeply and completely. This enhanced involvement serves to uncover hidden meaning as well as to validate ideas surfaced in other steps. We often use a sequence of probes to explore selected visual images more deeply. First, participants are asked to widen the frame of one or more selected pictures and describe what else might enter the picture that reinforces the original idea. They may also be asked to imagine themselves in the picture, and to discuss what might be taking place and what they are thinking and feeling. They may be asked to invite someone or something into the picture that will help them with a paradox or dilemma, and describe who or what it would be. Other follow-up questions help reveal the significance of this person or thing. Typically, this step is repeated with two or three pictures.
Sensory (Non-Visual) Metaphors
Participants are also asked to express their ideas using various sensory images. For instance, participants are asked what is (and what is not) the color, taste, smell, touch, sound and emotion of "privacy." Each answer is explored to uncover further dimensions of the person's thinking.
People engage different segments of the brain when they think about time sequence and motion than they do when thinking about still pictures. For this reason, we involve motion, time and further storytelling by asking participants to create a movie or one act play that expresses important ideas about the topic. Often we specify the characters that are to appear in this movie. Participants are asked to describe the location, time of day and season; who, if anyone, was present; what else was happening; and so on. This step provides additional perspective and understanding of the participant's thoughts and feelings.
Finally, at the end of the interview, each participant creates a summary collage in the form of a digital image, with the skilled assistance of a computer graphics imager. Most digital images are based on a subset of the pictures the participant initially brought to the interview (typically the most meaningful 5 to 7 pictures). While the digital image summarizes many ideas expressed earlier in the interview, new ideas frequently emerge from this creative process as participants modify pictures in size, color, shape, etc. to more fully convey their thoughts and feelings. When the image is finished, the participant gives a verbal description, which serves as an interpretative tour through the summary image.