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In a qualitative process we often use semiotic analytic technique, which is a method of conducting one-on-one interviews and group  sessions that maximizes the extraction of useful information.

Semiotic analytic technique, in turn, is based on synectics theory, which holds that core ideas from spoken language are drawn from a  number of places, only one of which is the content of the spoken language.

Semiotic Analytic Technique: Hearing What You’ve Never Heard  Before

Semiotic theory forms the basis of much of the contemporary  work in fields such as Management, Market Research, Psychology, Psychiatry,  Sociology, Social Psychology, and Linguistics, where the specific interpretive  modes of human communication are an important and relevant consideration.

In effect, what a person says is not necessarily what that  person means or what he/she truly believes.   Our active probing techniques permit us to discover the following:

What does a person really think?
What does a person really mean by what he/she  says?
What is a person’s real opinion?

The analytic approach we use to understand what is in the  speaker’s mind is a semiotic analytic technique: examining the order in which  ideas occur (syntactics), the meaning behind the ideas occurring (semantics),  and the context in which the ideas occur (pragmatics).  The result is not only a description of what  is said (reactions), but also the meaning and motivational capabilities  (personal relevance versus intellectual appeal).

Semiotic analysis is not an intuitive descriptive process,  but rather a systematic approach of breaking down the speaker’s perceptions of  a concept into thought processes.

There are three steps in the approach which we perform as  part of the analytical process:

  • Defining: identification of the key components of elements which make up a person’s  ideas;
  • Explaining: the comparing and contrasting of the components or elements of any ideas as    they differ across groups;
  • Implication: an if-then consequence construct.  If  these are the similarities and differences,   then what are the consequences?


Ordinary research asks questions, gets answers, counts them  and reports differences among and between populations.  Many of the answers that ordinary research  gets are superficial or top-of-mind answers.   We can obtain top-of-mind answers with qualitative techniques, as well,  but we don’t treat them as anything but superficial responses.

We probe deeply and get the underlying meaning beneath the  answer.  A person can have an opinion,  but we don’t know what that opinion means until it is connected with other  opinions that person holds.  It is this  connection that gives the “idea” meaning.  We probe topics so that connections between  ideas can be identified, thus achieving a deeper, more precise understanding of  what the person means by what he/she says.

Knowing What to Listen For

Research has shown that a 15-minute segment of a focus group  or depth interview will generate from 800 to 1,200 usable words.  Knowing what to listen for is critical to our  discipline, since only about 20% of those respondent words are relevant to our  understanding of what people mean by the words they use.  Within a group setting, clarification of  meaning for all respondents enables the moderator who uses this technique to  conduct a superior session.  This  technique works equally well for all types of respondents, consumer, business,  or industrial.

Active probing is the only way of making sure we understand  what the consumer means and why.  Here  are some examples of active probes:

Why do you say that?

Why is that important to you?

What do you mean by that?

What does that mean to you?

Would you explain that further?

How does that relate to what you said before?

Could you give me an example of that?

Define or describe that.

Active probing overcomes four key problems in extracting  useful information from spoken language:






A generalization is a vague, all-encompassing word or  phrase, without a context, which has no meaning in and of itself until inferred  by the passive listener or probed.

The moderator probes a generalization by uncovering the  context for the generalization, thereby determining the actual meaning.  This is accomplished by repeating the word or  phrase (i.e., the generalization) or saying, “What do you mean?”

Example:  “The cake is good.”

What does “The cake is good” tell the  listener?  The word “good” has  no specific context aside from its connection to the word  “cake.”  The moderator probes  for meaning.

Probe:  “Good?  What do you mean by  ‘good?'”

Response: “The cake is good  because it is my favorite, chocolate!”

The passive listener could have inferred the  “good” meant “tasty” or “homemade.”  By probing, we know “good” had a  different meaning.

By probing for more information, the moderator determines  what the communicator means by “good.”  However, probing a generalization has limits  in  that the meaning of an idea is defined within the context of  the statement made.  It is not known how  the idea relates to the attitudes or behavior of the communicator.  Probing a generalization uncovers the meaning  of that specific idea, but for more information the moderator must use  different probes.


A deletion is something that is left out of a conversation  that could be key to understanding the communicator’s attitudes.

The moderator probes a deletion by using an open-ended  question to determine what has been left out of the communicator’s  response.  This is accomplished by  saying, “What else?”

Example: “For my father I’d  probably pick something bright and blue.”

The listener could assume that blue was chosen because it is  society’s chosen color for boys.  That  inference would not have been correct.

Probe:  “Why blue?”

Response:  “Because that’s his favorite color.”

By probing “Why blue?,” the moderator gets the  communicator’s meaning.

By probing a deletion, the moderator will develop a fuller  picture of the communicator’s meaning and know the relative position of the  item mentioned in the communicator’s decision-making process.  If a deletion has occurred and a probe has  brought no further response, the moderator knows he has the complete picture and  that the communicator’s ideas are actually limited.


A distortion is a deflation or inflation of the integration  of an idea into the communicator’s decision-making process.  This occurs when the moderator knows neither  the boundaries of that idea nor the connection between the idea and the  communicator’s attitudes or behaviors.

The moderator probes a distortion by determining the  boundaries of that idea.  In the  following example, the communicator is voting in a court case regarding the  amount of restitution.  How does he  decide the amount of the restitution?

Example: “I don’t know how  I’d vote.  It’s hard to say if you don’t  know the background.”

Here we could have probed the word “background” as  a generalization, getting the meaning, yet still not know what components of  “background” play a role or how they affect the communicator’s  decision-making process.  We should probe  in a way that tries to discover how much of a role “background” plays  in the decision-making process (large or small).  Maybe other factors play a greater role.

Probe: “What information  would you need in order to determine how much restitution she should get?”

Response: “I’d like to know  more about the laws concerning restitution, and also more about the events  leading up to the accident.”

The moderator probes to determine what components are  included and excluded relative to “background.”

By probing a distortion, the moderator determines how  important something is to the communicator.   Given the boundaries between which an idea exists, the moderator gains  an understanding of the communicator’s attitudes and behavior.


A contradiction is at least two statements which imply  opposite or conflicting ideas held by the communicator.

Probing a contradiction requires careful listening and  tact…careful listening to catch the contradiction because one statement may  occur long before an opposite statement does, and tact because people do not  like to be told they have contradicted themselves.

Example: “I love my black  car.  It looks so much sportier than  other colors.”…(later) “Black cars are nothing but trouble.”

Probe: “You said that you  love your black car.  Is there anything  about it that you don’t like?”

Response: “Well, it doesn’t  hide the dirt very well, and it gets very hot in the summertime because it  absorbs the sun’s rays.  But it looks  great when it’s clean!”

Probing a contradiction lets the moderator know how  seemingly opposite or blatantly opposite ideas fit together or don’t fit  together in the communicator’s mind.

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