Observation and participation

One of the (many) criticisms of market research is that it is based on artificial, post-rationalised claimed responses. This line of thinking contends that there have been plenty of studies showing us to be unreliable witnesses to our own thoughts and actions – therefore surveys, focus groups and the like can’t be trusted.

Obviously, the reality is no so black and white. There are some things I can recall perfectly well – places I’ve shopped in the past week, why I like to blog etc. My answers would be truthful, though with the latter example the analysis might not take my literal answer but instead interpret it into a broader motivation.

Nevertheless, what I know I know is only one part of the Johari Window (which was channeled by Donald Rumsfeld for his known knowns speech) – the arena quadrant. For the other three quadrants, these methods are insufficient.

Fortunately, there is more to research than surveys and focus groups.

To slightly paraphrase the hidden quadrant, this would involve a methodology that would provide us with previously unknown information. This can be achieved through participation. IDEO are big proponents of this – I particularly like the example Paul Bennett gives of improving hospital waiting. The best way for them to discover the patient experience was to become the patient and spend a day strapped to a gurney. The view from the gurney is boring ceiling after boring ceiling, so IDEO used this space to provide both information and soothing designs.

The blind spot quadrant is where we battle the unreliable witness through observation. This could either be straight-forward observation or a mixture of observation and participation such as ethnography (remember: ethnography is not an in-home interview). Siamack Salari of Everyday Lives gives the fantastic example of a project he did for a tea company. This tea company had invested a great deal of money in research to understand the different perspectives people had on the perfect cup of tea. For the colour, they had even developed a colour palette outlining varieties. In closed research, people would pick their perfect colour. Yet, when observed, the colour of tea would never match. This is because people don’t concentrate on making the perfect cup of tea – the colour depends on the amount of milk they have left in the fridge and whatever else is capturing their attention (such as the toaster). Valuable information though, as Siamack noted in a training session I attended, an expensive way of finding out the answer you want doesn’t exist.

Thus, two simple examples to show the role of observation and participation in improving our understanding of things. As for the unknown window…

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Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/colorblindpicaso/3932608472

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One Response

  1. Good, insightful article with interesting examples. What they highlight so well is the importance of experiencing something personally to really know it (the hospital example), and the influence of the larger context (how, when, under what circumstances tea is prepared).

    I also like the reminder that ethnography is not simply an “in-home interview.” How true! But how easy to fall into that trap.

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