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ampersand research market research nottingham qualitative & quantitative
ampersand research market research nottingham qualitative & quantitative

Do like Columbo!

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

One of my simple pleasures in life (some would say guilty, but I feel no shame!) is watching Columbo. For friends and family this will not come as a shock as I have probably tried to persuade you to watch numerous episodes with me! For some of my fellow research colleagues my choice of detective show is debatable since Midsomer Murders, Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple top their list (I just found out that Mark’s preferred detective show is Sherlock). For some, you may be thinking what on earth has your love of Columbo got to do with ampersand research?! Well, let me explain!

Whilst watching the episode “Blueprint for Murder” last weekend for the third time (a personal claim to fame is that I have watched every episode!) I got thinking about how I have been inspired by Lieutenant Columbo over the years in my approach to qualitative research. From interviewing, to analysing, to writing a presentation and delivering the results, there are parallels between being a detective and a qualitative researcher.

The Columbo approach to interviewing

Ok, I wouldn’t describe myself exactly as Columbo when it comes to questioning participants – I have never been called a bumbling or absent minded researcher! However, we do have a common goal in that we want the detail and we need the participant / suspect to open up and talk to us. Although for Columbo it is evidence to support a conviction and for me it is evidence to support a recommendation; we both need to build a rapport with our audience.

Columbo’s chats with suspects are just that…chats. He starts off with small talk, he makes them feel at ease and then slips in the questions he needs answers to. This has resulted in several episodes ending where it feels like the Lieutenant and the murderer have a connection or some kind of bond. Likewise, there are times after interviews that participants have made the effort to phone or email me more information or thoughts on our discussions. So like Columbo, I have picked up the knack* of making audiences feel relaxed and comfortable.

The Reverse Whodunit

Most episodes work to a similar format where the identity of the murderer is known at the outset and we get to see how Columbo works it out. This open mystery approach is often where I find myself when I start writing the presentation. By the time the interviews have been completed and the analysis of AV files has been done (yes, I listen back to all recordings!) I know the answer. The mystery or in this case, the objectives, have been solved. It is not exactly the whodunit but the “what does the client do next”!

The challenge is to thread the findings, the observations, the “one more thing” nuggets of insight together into a compelling narrative that sticks with the client allowing them to use the research effectively in making decisions for the business. Like Columbo, the answer, or in his case the killer, is known, it is working back and finding the supporting evidence to nail the case or the objectives that makes compelling work (or viewing?).

The false exit

“Just one more thing” are Columbo’s famous words as he returns to a scene after supposedly exiting. This Columbo-ism I have picked up isn’t used when interviewing, well not intentionally anyway, but a habit I have developed at the end of writing a presentation. I always schedule in an extra day to the presentation process to allow myself time to reflect and allow myself “just one more thing” time. I get to the stage where I think I have finished the charts, am happy with them and then I leave it. I walk away for the evening, don’t give the slides another thought and revisit the following morning. This moment of pause, this time to consider the timings, this false exit allows fresh eyes and a considered approach to writing reports. Often it is a trivial “thing”, like the questions Columbo asks when he reappears at the end of the scene, that produce that “ah-hah” moment when something crystallises that went previously unnoticed.

Well, I have indulged myself and my love of Columbo enough for this post! If you would like to talk more about Columbo, or discuss the merits of other TV detectives in how they have inspired and influenced the way you work, or are interested in finding out more about how we work at ampersand research, please drop us a line or give us a call.

Telephone number: 0115 9932343


*Just one more thing…in almost every episode a piece of music features either as incidental background music or Columbo whistling or humming it to himself. This piece of music is “Knick Knack Paddy Wack”.

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