Adding beauty to market research

go on, do something different!

I’ve been reading various posts about market research and social media, which tend to focus on the usual self-hating stuff about the market research industry’s vulnerability.  I agree, pretty much:  some of the space that research took up is now being eaten away by other specialisms (data mining,  search engine optimisation, and web analytics), while the rest of what’s rightfully ours is taken by DIY tools such as SurveyMonkey.  (Can QualMonkey be far behind?)

Personally, I would argue that MR agencies have neglected to develop certain 21st-century skills in-house.   Market researchers tend to focus on data collection and analysis technology like Confirmit or SPSS  (if you’re lucky).

Things market researchers don’t bother with:  design.  Graphic design, web design, information design, whatever.   Design is right down at the bottom of the pile.   You buy it in, or you manage without it.

Researchers writing presentations huff over the latest critique of death-by-Powerpoint and insert a couple more company-approved clipart images into the 80-page deck.    Somewhere, a designer is weeping.

So.  If it were up to me,  I would not only run shedloads of training on statistics and experimental design, but I’d include these:

  • Essentials of graphic design
  • Digital photography
  • Photoshop
  • Using stock image libraries
  • Web design and an introduction to CSS

And if I were running a big research agency, I’d invest in some graphic designers and programmers to create some nifty and beautiful interfaces for running surveys and online communities.

Why shouldn’t people expect loveliness in a survey?

What skills would you like to see?

Paradigms in research; or, how your worldview shapes your methodology

In the introductory lectures for my master’s in organisational behaviour, we heard a great deal about paradigms. Indeed, we heard so much about paradigms that several of my classmates were quite keen to go back and get a refund on the course.

We – researchers, embryonic management consultants, careers counsellors and human resources managers – wished to get on with the simple business of learning all about human behaviour so that we could manipulate it for profit.  But first, we had to pass this module.

So.   Paradigms are, roughly speaking, coherent belief structures. Some people describe them as a lens through which to view the world.  A paradigm is a bundle of assumptions about the nature of reality, the status of human knowledge, and the kinds of methods that can be used to answer research questions.   The piece that follows is adapted from Guba and Lincoln’s seminal chapter in the massive tome, Handbook of Qualitative Research – a book which would be extremely useful in hand-to-hand combat.

Anyway. In social science, there are at least three competing paradigms: positivism, constructivism, and critical theory.

Do not panic.   You have been working with these all your life, without knowing it. Let’s take them one by one.

Positivism is where many of us live most of the time. The world is real, that chair is solid, my findings are statistically significant. Positivism is the world of science and testing hypotheses.

In the positivist world, researchers are objective and strive to minimise sources of bias wherever they can. Research is true, researchers exist apart from their data, and the best research (because you can use rigour) is quantitative.

Market research mostly exists in a rather positivist world.  Significance, return on investment, purchase decisions.  These are solid things.  When positivists do qualitative research, they worry about representativeness of findings, and how many people in Birmingham actually said they disliked the concept. (There is of course post-positivism, but I’ll skip over that lightly).

Constructivism. Constructivists wear corduroy trousers and like bright colours.   Constructivists argue that human beings construct their own social realities in relation to one another.  Reality is subjective and experiential : that thing over there that looks like a table is actually being used as a chair. My particular construction of reality might be shared with many other people, but other people could construct the same reality in quite different ways.

Political stances and religious beliefs are examples of large-scale competing explanations of similar realities. Knowledge is not absolute, and (the killer in terms of methodology) the researcher is no longer outside the system, but part of it.  Findings may be idiosyncratic, rather than generalisable; approaches are holistic.  The goal is of constructivist research is understanding and structuring, as opposed to prediction.

Qualitative research leans towards constructivism, as I think you would guess.  However, it also tends to be batted back towards positivism, because full-blown constructivism can be a little too relative for all concerned, especially as lots of market research is done in order to find out what large organisations can actually sell to lots of people.

I am a social constructivist in outlook, so I believe that qualitative researchers are inescapably subjective and research findings are co-created between the researcher and the respondents.   I also subscribe to social constructivism’s Achilles heel, the interpretation problem, AKA ‘Why should I believe your version of events over anyone else’s’, although fortunately social constructivism has a handy get-out-of-jail-free card for that one.*

Which brings us to critical theory.

An observant reader who hasn’t run away screaming might have noticed that positivism and constructivism have slightly different implicit values. Positivism doesn’t really mention values, but its value centre is really data and rigour. Constructivism, all fluffy and relative, is very concerned about the participant, and explaining the participant’s point of view.

In contract, critical theory is all about value, or more precisely, all about power and politics.  Critical theory is concerned with power relations and patterns of dominance.  You’ll also see it described as neo-Marxist theory and indeed a good way of getting into the spirit of critical theory is to analyse any given situation in the manner of Rick from the Young Ones.

Critical theory looks at the world through a political lens, in which certain groups – rich people, politicians, men, capitalism in general – exert power and influence over other groups. If you like, critical theory takes a historical perspective. The goal of critical theory is emancipation of the oppressed.

It was more or less at this point that my fellow Organisational Behaviour students got very, very angry indeed. This was rubbish, one person said. He wasn’t here to learn about stupid critical theory; he was here to learn all about how people worked so he could go back to his company and learn how to manage people better.

The lecturer smiled.

Someone else said: this is total gobbledygook and anyway, it’s all just useless theory – how on earth could anyone take it seriously; and more importantly, how could anyone make a living being a consultant who depended on critical theory??

The lecturer smiled a great shark-like smile.

I love Critical Theory.

Critical theory helps you look at assumptions, and at power relations. In organisational research, you can look at the ways in which management organises and represents certain kinds of meanings. You can look at career progression and the definition of high-flying careers. You can create new concepts, such as the role of emotional labour in customer service jobs. In science communication, you can look at the problematic issue of public engagement, and whether it is meaningful to assume it is value-free.

In market research, you can look at corporate attempts to structure the meaning of a brand, and consumer resistance to such meanings.  You can look at Twitter, or Facebook, or OpenID with your Critical Theorist hat on. Who profits from certain meanings? What actions does the system permit or forbidden? How do users react?

In terms of method, critical theorists use analysis (historical, situational, textual) and qualitative interviewing.   Qual interviews are quite interesting, although most critical theorists will come over all critical while writing it up, rather than when wielding a tape recorder.

Positivism wears a white coat, constructivism accepts a cup of tea, and critical theory is SUSPICIOUS.

I think there’s a kind of paradigmatic mash-up, too: large corporations act in their positivist way, expecting thanks from the masses, and instead of being complicit, the masses are suspicious. They distrust your motives. They rebel. At other times, they carry your message quite happily to the ends of the earth.

Personally, I move between these three paradigms. I spend most of my time being a constructivist with post-positivist leanings: understanding responses and creating persuasive accounts.  I will often flick into a critical perspective, at least in analysing a brief, because critical theory shakes everything up in ways that can be very helpful.  It is perhaps not cricket to use critical theory as a tool for maintaining power relationships, but, well, needs must.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

Questions? Thoughts? Reactions?

*No one has ever asked me, but I have the answer.

Market research opinion: a contradiction in terms?

About 4 years ago, I did a master’s degree in organisational psychology.  I started off with the intention of changing career quite radically; I ended up (in the manner of many career changers) by making a more gentle change, to focus on science, new technology and (where possible) applying all that newly-updated knowledge of psychological theory to real-life projects.

Last year, I mostly worked with non-research organisations: usability agencies, user experience consultants, management consultants and learned societies.  Different working practices, different worldviews, different assumptions.

One huge difference in assumptions is that the practitioner is expected to bring their own professional opinions and wider knowledge to the table.     It may just be my impoverished experience, but too often researchers expect to present the findings rather coldly and consider the job done.   That’s what many research users expect, too.  You decide what to do with the findings once the researchers have backed out of the room.

At the same time, the Market Research Society complains (as it has done for over 20 years if my experience is anything to go by) that researchers are not getting enough respect as providers of true insight.

It is a remarkable thing when researchers offer insight.  Possibly a rather rare thing, too.

I think researchers box themselves in without even knowing it.  It’s a craft job, apprentice-taught.   There’s a startling lack of basic knowledge.  Although professionalism is creeping in via training, you’ll still find plenty of quantitative researchers who can’t tell you what a correlation coefficient is, and plenty of qualitative researchers who think that social constructivism is some form of Russian architecture.

We’re mechanics then, mostly, not designers and theorists.  There isn’t much of a theory of mechanics, and the mechanics struggle to offer meaningful insight into automotive design.

If I think about my own qualitative research training, then I don’t think I received any significantly useful professional development since I sat at the feet of Roddy Glen (himself an ex-planner) as a wee junior.     Doing a qualitative project as my Master’s thesis offered the chance to get stuck into theory;  and theory, as it turns out, is one of the most practical things you can learn.   Understanding competing theories, and you understand your own landscape for the the first time.  You’re clear about what you do, and you can offer your own opinion with far more perspective.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but I also wonder whether that atheoretical, fear-of-taking-a-stance working practice is one reason why there are so few research bloggers.    Having a personal opinion simply isn’t done.

My bad experience? Or would you agree?

Understanding online cultures: Motrin moms and international online motherhood

As a Brit, I hadn’t come across the controversy about the Motrin Moms TV advertising, although I’ve seen it referenced in lots of social media blogs.

I’m confused at some of the coverage which seems to focus on the corporate response rather than the terrifying lack of imagination involved in creating the advertising itself.

i just did a little homework, looking at the advertising, the initial response and some of the follow-up and I have to hope that if I had been anywhere near Motrin and their advertisers, I would have pointed out that they were inadvertently creating all the conditions for a Perfect Storm:

1. Talk about baby slings irreverently

I can’t believe they went there.  The Continuum Concept – it’s not just a book, it is practically a religion.   You would not believe the number of fervent baby-sling makers out there.   They are young, they use organic cotton, they are online and they are, well, a bit militant.

2. Use hipster talk and graphics to try to address a young, net-literate audience

The advertisers might not have intended to target online types with a heavy Twitter habit, but the style certainly looks as though it’s trying to engage their ironic geek attention.

3. Fundamentally, be in the business of flogging painkillers to the masses

If there is one thing that committed baby-sling wearers hate more than disposable nappies and powdered formula, it is Big Pharma.     You spend your entire pregnancy attempting to be as organic as possible, eschewing all painkillers as potential toxins;  and you carry that mindset right through the early breastfeeding days.   Taking a painkiller for your backache?  Are you serious?!!!  You might as well drink neat gin and be done with it.

Anyway.  Selling drugs to desperately health-conscious internet-savvy corporate-suspicious slightly-militant new mothers =starting from a bad place.

I don’t know about the general attitude to painkillers in the US, I have no idea about Motrin’s brand image, and there are aspects of the culture that I no doubt miss, but…I’ve been an online mum.    Still am, obviously, but rather past the baby stage.    I can sketch out the online mum subcultures of the UK and USA in a giant geek map if required to do so.    I can’t think of a mum subculture where this approach would have resonated.

I’ve seen commenters say (in comments) that as there were only 1,000 complaints on Twitter and Twitter mums were not the target audience, the company shouldn’t have worried.  I think they’re dead wrong about that, in this case.

Here’s where it gets difficult: online firestorms do not always match genuine outrage in the community of relevance.  Sometimes it can be a very bad guide to popular response.  In this case, I think it’s simple:  the attempt to engage through advertising backfired badly.     It could have resonated, I suppose, with the baby-sling sceptics, but the tone was off, and in any case the core proposition (sort out your baby-sling backache by necking pills) clangs horribly any way you try to deconstruct it.

Social media helps critics and sceptics to argue back with big corporations, and to mobilise support from their networks.  As well as sales figures and bland market research presentations, you get the direct, irritated voice of the complainer.  That’s not something everyone is ready for.   How to distinguish genuine complaint from issue-annexing?   Know your audience, both on- and off-line.

ETA One  thing that does bother me:  place-of-response bias.  Did the Twitter complaints get executives’ attention precisely because it took place on Twitter (nicely searchable and beloved geek-den) rather than deep in the comments on the message boards of parenting sites?