Can researchers engage?

Ray Poynter has an interesting item on what he calls Insight 2.0 – the implications of participatory culture (OK, Web 2.0) for clients.   One implication is the short-circuiting of formal research and research management by decision-making departments who are keen to listen to their customers more closely (possibly, without the filter of those pesky researchers).

In parallel, I’m not always sure that researchers allow themselves to do that listening.   We’re often too busy thinking about validity and sample sizes to respond properly to an individual customer; like many marketers, we may also be too busy with day-to-day work to spend much time understanding the participatory side of the Web.  We may find it hard to respond in the spontaneous way that some web users expect.  This will change as a generation who have grown up with technology bring it into their work as well as their leisure, but right now it feels as though there is a language disconnect.

One difficulty which all the discussion of Web 2.0 does not address is that organisations and researchers often want to talk about topics that do not particularly interest their users.  

Anyone who’s moderated a group knows the pain of making a group talk about a design detail which the client company has been arguing over for weeks, but which the end user doesn’t really notice or indeed care about.  Equally, there are whole product areas, especially in financial services, where the interaction is absolutely minimal or even avoided.

The excitement about customer participation also doesn’t address those aspects where user awareness verges on the subliminal.  I’m thinking here about the response to colours and branding, where it is possible to research views in a careful way but simply listening to customer feedback won’t necessarily help.  On the other hand, maybe those areas need a little bit of creative thinking: encouraging users to create a visual scrapbook, perhaps?