Remember who the expert is

When European sailors discovered Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known to its inhabitants, the first thing they noticed was the enormous moai statues.

Understandably, they were amazed that a small population of people with access to only simple tools had been able to carve and move these vast stone figures, weighing up to 82 tonnes.

They asked the islanders how the statues had been put in place.

“They walked.”

Since this was obviously nonsense, Europeans over the years developed theories to explain the apparently impossible. Rollers seemed the most likely explanation, and this tied in nicely with the evidence that Rapa Nui had once been covered in palm trees.

An idea soon emerged of a people who, prioritising their statues above all else, cut down all the trees on the island for rollers to move their statues. Ultimately this led to the collapse of civilisation on the island, as there was simply not enough food to maintain the population.

This was the received wisdom for over a hundred years, and it forms a neat parable of the risks of not looking after our environment, but it’s probably not what happened on Rapa Nui.

As Paul Cooper explains in an episode of the superb Fall of Civilizations podcast, the inhabitants of Easter Island were wiped out by contact with Europeans. New diseases and slave-raiding were the main drivers of depopulation on an island that seems to have been remarkably peaceful and well organised for hundreds of years, until the Europeans arrived.

What has all this got to do with research?

I’ve written a few things recently about the importance of interpretation in qualitative research. That’s certainly true, but there is a catch. It’s all too easy to hear what we expect to hear. The listener’s assumptions can make them deaf to what the speaker is actually saying, particularly when there’s a perceived imbalance of power (like the assumption that the inhabitants of Easter Island were “primitive”).

If you want to understand customers, start by assuming that what they say is true. Forget your preconceptions, and treat your customer as an expert—after all, who knows more about how they feel, and why, than they do? Start by believing what they tell you, and if it seems strange do the work to figure out why there’s a perception gap.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the moai moved into position? They walked.

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