People like people

Senior business folk like numbers. Facts and statistics to base decisions on and to evaluate performance. It’s both rational and sensible.

But occasionally, it is beneficial not to be rational or sensible. As the Apple “Think Different” campaign so memorably reminded us.

Organisations should have plenty of talented members capable of coming up with creative and innovative strategies to immediate and potential business concerns.

But when you want the opposite to rational or sensible, the best thing might be to consult the public. Whether consumers, users, viewers, prospects, advocates, rejecters, indifferents, promoters, lovers, haters or otherwise, each person will have a unique take on a situation.

Each person has their own behaviours, needs, habits, lifestyle, attitudes, hopes, fears and opinions which can relate directly or indirectly to an organisation, market or industry.

And every so often it is beneficial for senior business folk to hear these. To be reminded, inspired, provoked, amused, horrified, informed, affirmed or corrected.

What they hear will either be

  • Something they already knew, and should respond to
  • Something they already knew, but shouldn’t respond to
  • Something they didn’t know, and should respond to
  • Something they didn’t know, but shouldn’t respond to

All are valuable. Whether delivered through ethnographic videos, photo logs, social media listening, user-generated content competitions or through other means, each new piece of stimulus helps evolve the thinking of those making the key decisions.

Facts and numbers are powerful. But people are also powerful. Even hearing the same opinion heard many times before but by a different voice in an unusual situation creates new context and new meaning.

Therefore, we should strive to complement our rational decision-making with the creative expression that comes from voices that may not be found in the board room.

sk

NB: Inspiration for the post’s title is from the Riz MC song of the same name (who, to my knowledge, is the first and thus far only one of my university peers to achieve public success – measured by having a Wikipedia page). The lyrics have nothing to do with the content above, but the title led me to start thinking in this direction.

 

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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…

sk

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

Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets

homicide a year on the killing streetsI regularly buy books but I rarely read them. I’m making a conscious effort to rectify that – not only because of the expense of purchasing them, but because reading books is (for me at least) a different type of experience to reading online. I read slower and more carefully, thus absorbing the general flow and patter of a writing style in addition to the content.

The most recent book I have read (for recreation) is Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Being an avid viewer of The Wire (but having not seen either The Corner nor Homicide: Life on the Street) a couple of situations and stories were recognisable (see the video at the bottom of the post – no spoilers). However, the book is so well written that it can be enjoyed irrespective of previous viewing.

The book is divided into 12 chapters – one per month. It is written by David Simon, at the time a reporter on the Baltimore Sun, and follows his year working as a police intern alongside the 15 Homicide detectives (and 3 sergeants) in Lieutenant D’Addario’s shift.

Three elements to the book that were particularly well depicted include

1. The problem solving – a crime scene is a mystery with a clock ticking. The officers have to quickly look for evidence and witnesses as, although a person can only be murdered once, a crime scene can be murdered a thousand times. The book depicts the different ways in which people approach the mystery – it can be methodical, lucky or inspired.

2. The humanity – each person has his (and they are nearly all men) own distinct personality and method. These are not always compatible – yet disagreements are shown from both sides and judgements aren’t made. Sometimes these are resolved and sometimes they are not, but motivations and reasoning of each participant have always been considered.

3. The culture – it feels like a real city, with enclaves of different sub-cultures. The police know that some people don’t talk to them about an investigation, while others talk too much. The situations and the people are all well-realised, and fit together into a larger entity.

In many respects, David Simon was an anthropologist or an ethnographer on his assignment. The book is a successful narrative that not only combines the individual case studies and character investigations, but extrapolates them to a functioning interrelated environment.It is much more than a true crime story; it is a story about people.

He doesn’t castigate or sensationalise. It goes beyond reporting. He strives to understand.

That should be the aspiration for any researcher, strategist or marketer that is responsible for understanding a particular segment or sub-group.

sk

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Should we listen to every conversation?

Over on the Essential Research blog, I have responded to a post by a social media conversation monitor who eulogised the death of focus groups.

In that post, I have outlined why focus groups themselves aren’t the issue; rather it is shoddy application. Here, I want to expand on that a bit. It is my contention that conversation monitoring is more flawed than traditional research, and should not be used for major corporate decision.

Alan Partridge once declared himself to be a homosceptic, and in a not dissimilar way I am doubtful of the efficacy of social media monitoring.

In terms of numbers signing up, the social space is still increasing. However, the number of active users within this universe will remain limited – the late arrivals will be the more passive and occasional users. This space is increasingly asymmetric, with network effects and power laws distorting the flow of information.

Topics of conversation will by nature revolve around the major players – whether individuals, blogs or organisations. The larger the hub, the weaker the concentration of signal to noise.

As a small example, consider blog commenting. Aside from the odd spam comment, the contributions I get here are all genuinely helpful. Because this is a relatively small blog, there are few people commenting out of self-interest. Moving to the larger sites, comments are filled with spam, self-promotion and unquestioning advocacy/contrariness. Genuine debate and discussion still exists, but it is diluted by the inanity surrounding it. This on its own creates difficulties for sentiment analysis, but clever filters can overcome this.

But despite the internet being open, we will cluster around likeminds. Group think creates an echo chamber. danah boyd has pointed out that teenagers network with pre-existing friends. It is my observation that the majority of adults network with those in their pre-existing spheres. Planners chat to planners. Cyclists to cyclists. Artists to artists. Mothers to Mothers. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive, but the crossover is minimal compared to likeminds.

Remember the Motrin outrage? The mainstream majority remain blissfully ignorant. This may have been because it was resolved before it had a chance to escalate to the mainstream media, but it nevertheless shows the limited nature of social media echos.

Of course, some products or services target the early adopting, tech savvy ubergeeks and so for these companies they should obviously engage where their audience is.

But for the rest? Despite my assertions above, I do view monitoring as useful, but only as a secondary tool. Tracking conversations as they happen is a useful feedback mechanism, but few companies are going to be nimble enough to implement it immediately (once they have separated the meat from the gristle and verified that this opinion is indeed consensus).

Surveys and groups are indeed limited by taking place in a single point in time, and through these it is difficult to extrapolate long-term reaction. The Pepsi taste test being one notorious example.

But there are plenty of longitudinal research methodologies that are suitable. Long-term ethnographic or observational studies can track whether attitudes or behaviour do in fact change over time. These can be isolated in pilots or test cases, so that any negative feedback can be ironed out before the product or service is unleashed to the general public.

This is where traditional research still prevails: the controlled environment. Artificiality can be a benefit if it means shielding a consumer basis from something wildly different from what they are used to.

This takes time though, and some companies may prefer to iterate as they go, and “work in beta”. Facebook is an example of this – they have encountered hostility over news feeds, Beacon, redesigns and terms of service.Each time, they have ridden the storm and come back stronger than ever.

Is this a case study for conversation monitoring effectiveness? Not really. They listened to feedback, but only implemented it when it didn’t affect their core strategy. So, the terms of service changed back but the news feed and redesign stayed. Features intrinsic to its success.

Should Scyfy have gone back to being the Sci-Fi channel due to the initial outrage? Perhaps. Personally, I think it is a rather silly name but it didn’t do Dave any harm. If they have done their research properly, they should remain confident in their decision.

Conversation monitoring can be useful, but it should remain a secondary activity. A tiny minority have a disproportionately loud voice, and their opinions shouldn’t be taken as representative of the majority. When iterating in public, there is a difficult balance between reacting too early to an unrepresentative coalition, and acting too late and causing negative reaction among a majority of users/customers.

Because of this, major decisions should be taken before going to market. Tiny iterations can be implemented after public feedback, but the core strategy should remain sound and untouched.Focus groups and other research methodologies still have an important place in formulating strategy.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeff-bauche/

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Koyaanisqatsi and different perspectives

Last night I finally got around to watching Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s classic collaboration with the master of the recursive composition, Philip Glass. It is the first part of a trilogy, with Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi succeeding.

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word that means (in one translation) “Life Out of Balance”. The central message of the film is fairly simplistic – nature is wondrous and man is destructive – but even the depictions of destruction display a certain beauty and nobility.

What makes it such a classic (and a film I would wholeheartedly recommend) is the cumulative effect that the time-lapse, slow motion and recursive/minimalist soundtrack have on the senses. One can become hypnotised by things we didn’t realise existed. Some of the iconic shots sound simplistic (and stock footage is heavily used) but the excellence is in the execution (as Bret Hart used to say)

  • Cloud movement sped up to resemble waves
  • An atomic bomb exploding in slow motion
  • Video still-life portraits
  • The moon passing behind a skyscraper
  • Nighttime traffic sped up to resemble waves of electricity
  • Flaming debris from the Atlas Rocket circling in the sky

The techniques utilised have been transferred to the world of advertising to great effect. Three examples from music, video games and consumer goods are:

GTA: IV

Ray of Light by Madonna

Dove’s Onslaught


Watching the film has re-iterated a very simple instruction that I try to follow, but invariably don’t.

Look around.

Rather than walk around London with my head down and earphones in, look up. Stop from time to time. Observe. That way I will see something I have never previously noticed.

New observations lead to new ideas. These don’t have to be revolutionary. They do need to display understanding and insight. That requires attention.

One section (movement?) of Koyaanisqatsi focuses on the everyday urban life. Yet it finds beauty through a whole new perspective.

Yesterday, Dave Trott wrote about radical common sense – creative but simple ideas.

Dirt is Gooddespite a backlash – is often held up as a good example of a straightforward yet revolutionary insight.

Ethnography and anthropology are increasingly being used in research to great effect. Just seeing how people live and operate can make a huge difference. Grant McCracken and Jan Chipchase both produce fascinating essays and insights in their respective fields, to give just two examples.

Whether it is swimming in data or sitting in the village of Nyamikamba (as Stuart did recently), there is always a new observation to be found.

We just have to look for it.

sk

We Need to Change: Presentation on Market Research

Helge Tennø has created several visually arresting and thought provoking presentation decks and the latest is no exception.

We Need to Change is – in his words – a loosely structured collection of thoughts and references regarding the mediocre but promising state of market research

(RSS readers may need to click through)

I like the general thrust of the piece but don’t wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion. Ethnography is useful in situations where complex interactions can be synthesized and extrapolated to a wider population, but it is not a fix-all solution.

Saying that, I recognise the intrinsic flaws of rational surveying and am fully supportive of the moves to complement, or even supplant, survey data with observed behavioural information on a mass scale.

sk