If people ask what I do, my one-sentence answer tends to be “I help organisations understand their customers”.
What does that actually mean?
The tools we use are well-established quantitative and qualitative research techniques; all of which fundamentally boil down to one thing: talking to people.
Easy. Sort of.
No doubt you’ve seen the ever-growing hype around Behavioural Economics? It’s a field that has an enormous amount to teach those of us whose job is to understand other people, and particularly the way they make decisions.
We know, for example, that people are really bad at predicting their future behaviour (“Yes, I’ll definitely eat more salad and fewer doughnuts this year”), and nearly as bad at explaining why they did things.
Does that mean that research based on asking people questions is a waste of time?
I don’t believe so. But it does mean that it’s a good idea to focus your questions on the right things.
If you want to know about past/current behaviour it’s best to use observation or other sources of data if you can. If that’s not an option then people are fairly reliable about specific events, especially soon after them, and pretty unreliable on general patterns of behaviour (“How often do you go to the gym?”).
Future behaviour is tricky, because asking people is pretty much the only option. But consider the way you ask it, and see if you can set yourself up for more accuracy. If you want to know whether people will buy your product, don’t ask a focus group (they’ll all say yes to be polite), see if you can get them to part with cash on Kickstarter. If that’s not possible, frame it as a choice—would they buy your product instead of their current supplier?
Understanding how people will behave if you make a change (to a website, store layout, etc.) is best done by experiment. The more concrete you can make the future state for customers, through actual change or prototyping, the more accurate your findings.
Motivations are notoriously difficult for people to know, let alone explain. There’s no harm asking the question, but there’s often more insight from a good understanding of psychology than from people themselves. Rather than asking people why they did something, ask them how they feel about the choice they made or the product they chose, and then do the hard work in the analysis.
Attitudes form the mainstay of most research work, whether it’s brand associations, customer satisfaction, or employee engagement. We’re talking about thoughts and feelings, and again there are well-established limitations in what people are capable of telling you. The halo effect is a big one—if you want a meaningful attitude survey you have to work hard to ensure you get deeper than a single overall impression. Adding more questions won’t help, in fact it’ll make it worse.
Behavioural Economics teaches us that research based on asking people questions is limited, but it also gives us a framework to understand what those limitations are and how they work. It is not a threat to market research, in my view, but a coming of age.