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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Considering the collective opinion

Life is not logical. The whole is different to the sum of its parts.

Yet the majority of quantitative research is not structured to reflect this.

It assumes that survey respondents are considered and rational individuals, able to make an informed choice when asked to consider a series of options, or able to adequately communicate their thoughts, opinions or attitudes.

Yet, in most instances this isn’t true

  • The school of behavioural science, currently championed by Rory Sutherland at the IPA, portrays humans as mannequins to be manipulated by an invisible hand, or nudged to predictably irrational conclusions
  • Those who believe Google makes us stupid talk about the rise of distributed memory. We are now more wired to remember a wide range of data superficially, rather than a depth of informed knowledge
  • Our hectic lives preclude a degree of considered choice on non-special occasions, so we blink, “thin-slice” and make gut reactions
  • The paradox of choice and analysis paralysis mean we prefer to make choices on a more limited number of options than are perhaps available – this screening process is by no means optimal
  • The individual is not an island, but part of a community

This latter point in particular has been on my mind recently.

There have been attempts to engineer research by identifying influentials or mavens (link is a pdf) but I’m not aware of any technique that satisfactorily conveys the intertwining impact that our personal relationships and media exposure have on our thoughts and actions.

We might follow Herd behaviour. So, if the media constantly mentions Facebook, it leads people to try it. And if Academy Members hear that the Hurt Locker is the favourite to win best film, then they will vote for it.

But then there doesn’t appear to be a guarantee that this prophecy is self-fulfilling. A Labour victory at the 1992 election was seen as a foregone conclusion, yet people stayed at home or kept their Conservative biases hidden until the day of polling. And the hype surrounding Second Life didn’t convert us all to living vicariously through an online avatar.

So why not? Duncan Watts has worked extensively on this. He argues in favour of randomness, where an initial option gains some traction that is in turn exacerbated as people validate it. This makes some intuitive sense – if I am searching on Amazon, I might initially limit my search to the highest rated items, even though those rating them might have highly different needs for the product to my own.

Is it possible to predict which ideas or concepts will eventually succeed? I know Brainjuicer have had some success with their predictive markets, but it appears to be an area open for innovation.

Would we need to run full simulations (either controlled experiments, or computer models) to judge which environmental factors will have the largest influence?

Or would it be possible to infer a “herd multiplier” to frame a concept in the likelihood of it being adopted by a community or the media?

Or could we go back and question people on their expected behaviour in the context of what their actual behaviour was, in order to get them to post-rationalise the differences?

Or, will this always be a problem with quantitative research, and instead we should look to smaller sample groups of people to test how ideas and preferences disseminate and iterate through a group of likeminded people?

I don’t know the answer. But it is certainly something worth thinking about.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28191556@N02/3160824946/

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How can research inspire?

The question in the title is predicated on the assumption that research can inspire. While the haters may disagree, I truly believe it can.

Understanding the different ways in which it can do so is trickier.

In a slight contradiction to my previous post on “insight”, I’m using the term “research in its most catch-all form. Rather than restricting the thinking to groups or surveys, I’m thinking about all disciplines and all methodologies. Research, data and insight.

In order for research to inspire, the recipient needs to be able to be inspired. Some form of creative process in order to make that new connection or leap is necessary.

In thinking about how research can inspire, I’ve come up with three initial ways. It is by no means a typology and the examples aren’t even mutually exclusive but it seems like a good start in which to organise my thoughts.

Structure:

The way in which research issues are approached and the problems framed. Examples include:

  • Methodology: The methodology itself could suggest new and previously alien ways to approach an issue. This post from Tom Ewing highlights some innovations in how research is carried out, but there are numerous examples of fresh approaches – from fMRI scanning to crowdsourcing.
  • Influences: Research is often (correctly) portrayed as insular but there are notable exceptions – Tom Ewing himself being one of them. He is able to take his knowledge and skills from music criticism and community building and apply them to research problems. Admittedly, this example isn’t research-specific but it nevertheless can inspire others to bring in people with different perspectives
  • Backwards approach: I mean this in a good way – research briefs are often issued to answer specific questions. To discover the most relevant way to get this information, researchers need to start with the answer and work backwards to figure out both the question and the way in which it is asked

Results

While a lot of research may be characterised otherwise, results themselves can inspire:

  • Exploratory research: By its very nature is designed to uncover new observations or – deep breath – insights
  • Fresh perspectives: Seeking to understand different audiences can lead to fresh outlooks as we look at the same issue from someone else’s eyes. While the Morgan Stanley note from their 15 year old intern was undoubtedly overplayed, I did like the notion that teenagers stay away from Twitter because it is full of old people trying to be young (for what it’s worth, I view Twitter as being far closer to Linked In than Facebook – it is useful connections rather than genuine relationships)
  • Holistic understanding: On a larger scale, ethnographers like Jan Chipchase offer us fascinating observations into areas we would never have even previously considered
  • Prototyping: I’ve written about IDEO before, and I love how they actually physically build things in order to better understand the problems
  • Desk research: Somewhat tenuous, but even sitting at your desk and reading, and being inspired, by different blogs or sites can be considered a form of research – whether one is explicitly looking for specific information or not

Implementation and Impact

Moving on from the results themselves, how research is used or the effects it has may also inspire

  • Workshops: Debating how research can be used can lead to further thoughts on idea implementation
  • Social effects of making data public: From last.fm to Nike+ making personal data available both encourages further participation and causes people to adjust their natural behaviour
  • Rewards and recognition: Similarly, in communities there have been noticeable effects on user behaviour and community culture when elements such as post counts or social connections have been introduced
  • Analytics: Avainash Kaushik is a Google Analytics evangelist who is full of great examples in how understanding site data has improved business performance

This question was recently posed to me by a colleague working on an assignment. The assignment is ongoing so any further thoughts, ideas or examples on how research methods, results or implementation can inspire would be massively appreciated.

And perhaps this attempt at crowdsourcing opinion will inspire others to a solution for the issues they are facing…

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenpoff/

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