Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Quirks.
The power of smoosh
What do we lose when we rely only on what others tell us? Often, we lose nothing. Words can be illuminating. I’ve made it my life’s work to listen to what clients, consumers and colleagues tell me. Sometimes words are pure poetry, like the German word waldeinsamkeit, which describes the feeling of being alone in the woods. Or tartle, the Scottish word for the panic or hesitation felt just before introducing someone whose name you can’t remember. And while I’ve never had a respondent liken an experience, product or service to solitude among the pines, the power and insight contained in what they tell me never ceases to amaze.
Although we learn so much from the words our consumers share, an entirely new dimension of the consumer experience is unlocked when we go past words shared with us in a focus group, in an online discussion or in a survey and find ways to directly observe the consumer experience with our own eyes and ears. I’m certainly not here to make a case against listening to and acting upon what consumers tell us through text-based and discussion-based research. Perhaps a better question is not what do we lose with words alone but what do we gain when we use technology to both hear and see what people think, feel and experience?
Feel closer to the story
There’s a reason kids love show-and-tell day at school and a reason we read our children stories from illustrated books instead of reading lists of facts off a legal pad at bedtime. There is sometimes no substitute for being able to see something as it is described. I recently listened to a podcast that should win awards for its vivid and visceral descriptions, yet as soon as I could, I found myself searching for pictures of the people and places discussed. Why? The images made me feel closer to the story and like I had a better and clearer understanding of that world as I continued listening.
For researchers, visual cues can eliminate assumptions about what someone might mean. Imagine reading about a makeup routine or hearing someone describe how to execute a favorite recipe. How do we truly know what someone means when they say “…now smoosh the concealer under the eyes – pat, pat, pat…” or “The meat should feel firm but springy when it’s done…” How exactly does one “smoosh?” How “springy” is springy enough? These descriptions and definitions are immeasurably enhanced by witnessing the process.
I once fielded a project where participants were asked to try a new personal care product. Almost everyone in the very large study told us how much they liked the product throughout the text-based assignments. Based on what they’d written, this prototype was a slam dunk across the board. But in addition to written journals and assignments, we also asked respondents to capture video of the very first moment they tried using the prototype. This was an edible product and much to our surprise nearly everyone looked like they’d bit into a lemon on that first try. It was a very brief, fleeting moment we only saw in the first product trial but it became a strong anchor point as we observed usage over the course of the study.
As the trial period continued, few ever mentioned or even remembered that initial “zing” in their written journals. Only the first trial elicited the wide-eyed surprise we saw again and again on video. Subsequent use videos were missing that funny face because participants knew what to expect and moved on. Without seeing this short but critical first try, we would have lost major insight from that small moment and would not have probed as hard as we did to figure out exactly what caused the grimaces. Ultimately, the strength of the flavoring and the texture were addressed, both in the formula and the marketing.
I often think back to this example as my team and I scope research. I’ve always known how powerful the combination of reported behavior and direct observation can be but this study made me extra sensitive to it. I am on a constant search for the electricity these moments create because they add sparks both when we design and when they emerge in analysis.
Almost too many choices
These days it is nearly effortless to integrate video, photos, memes, gifs and more into both daily life and consumer research. It’s simple and powerful, so why don’t we do it more often? The truth? Despite all the technical advances, it can still be daunting to figure out how and when and why to use this technology to the fullest. We have the tools at our disposal but we almost have too many choices and too uncertain a path to success. How do we get maximum research impact and successfully blend the way respondents show us and tell us what they think and do? Instead of starting by laying out all the possible combinations each tool in our toolkit can deliver, we find greater success starting with the core, fundamental insight need and working backwards to land on the critical path to success.
Here are some examples of how to get maximum impact out of technology for objective-based qualitative research. Many of these solutions can have a place paired with quantitative work too but for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick to qual in this article. The business need is always what I consider first when scoping a multidimensional approach. From there, I evaluate the merits of all the technology and tools at my disposal. Some are best suited for deep, strategic dives, while others lend themselves to broad but simple glimpses. It’s this ability to tailor the approach to the research that provides great freedom in design and yields authenticity in results.
Need: A complete view of the consumer’s life, habits, routines. When we need to understand a day in the life of a customer, or the specific laundry routines of your segments, or exactly how moms and kids snack at home and on the go, we need a way to see and hear what they do. Here, the most impactful approach is a video ethnography (in-home, in-store or both) and a multi-day bulletin board with text and photo assignments. Respondents record daily or recurring activities and answer video- or text-based questions over the course of several days or weeks. Participants may create collages or mood boards to convey certain thoughts and emotions. Once complete, we have an in-depth understanding of our consumer backed by not only their words but also video clips and visual cues, a much richer data set.
Need: Test a new product or prototype. When we have a new product or prototype to test with a specific audience, I’d choose a video ethnography paired with live text conversations. In this construct, respondents record video of themselves interacting with the product – first look, first impression and recurring usage in their home or elsewhere. Then, individuals participate in a one-on-one moderated conversation to round out thoughts, feelings and experiences with the product. This provides a robust view of a product’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvements. These insights come to life from the combination of text and video so we can make smart adjustments and go to market with confidence.
Need: Bring customer segments to life. If you’re the proud owner of a consumer-segmentation or -typing tool, congratulations! It is hard work to define and describe consumer segments. But what happens when the numbers and typing don’t tell us enough about these customers? Or what if the tool has aged a bit and we want to be sure the target profile hasn’t moved in the marketplace? I always love putting real faces and voices to segments because it helps teams and executives feel personally connected to what can become large, abstract consumer groups. Here, a bulletin board and live video interview is just the ticket. Respondents answer qualitative questions in a multi-day board to flesh out segmentation learnings from the quantitative instrument. Informed by findings from the board, moderators then conduct live one-on-one video interviews to give a true voice to each segment. The result? A curated source of consumer highlights and personal touchstones to illuminate key segments.
Need: Capture the voice of the consumer to bolster a pitch or executive-level presentation.Sometimes we need answers from many and soundbites from a few. I see this a lot when we’re in the early stages of ideation or pitching new concepts to internal or external partners. For this need, a live one-on-one text exchange provides a solid body of answers to key questions and one to two straightforward video answers embedded in the exchange bring it to life. Here, it’s possible to gather short clips from all or just the “rock stars” to help put emphasis on key findings. The outcome is solid, poised findings and some dazzling presentation clips to seal the deal.
Access to something amazing
Heard it all before? I know I have. It sounds great but can we apply compound approaches without complex logistics derailing everything and pushing timelines into purgatory? I’m here to assure you it can be done. It can! Because when we let the business need dictate the multidimensional approach (and not the other way around), we get direct, immediate access to the magic of seeing and hearing from those who matter most to our business. When consumers show us a routine, laugh through a recipe, gesture wildly as they tell us about something they love or hate, we get access to something amazing: authenticity – a rare commodity and something technology is helping us capture in a way that is comfortable for consumers and efficient for researchers. These authentic insights are well-rounded and more complete than a single-phased approach, enabling you to act with greater confidence.
The great news? The technology powering video, photo and interactive research tools gets better every day. Price and time constraints matter less and less. You don’t have to trade quality for speed or settle for a low price but mediocre outcome. If you’re happy with the way you do research without these tools today, I’m glad. It means you’re great at what you do and your business is benefitting from your expertise. But if you haven’t explored more multidimensional approaches that offer the power of show-and-tell – why not? What might you lose in the space between what people say they do and what they actually do? If you think about it, you have nothing to lose but that empty, grey space. Trade that empty space for authenticity, depth and richer consumer truths. Let the research show and tell your business how much untapped potential lies ahead.