Doing Research


Listening (or not). Image via Dyanna on flickr

I’m a huge fan of The Apprentice. (Don’t know if you get this outside the UK – reality TV show about would-be entrepreneurs, working on new money-making ‘tasks’ every week)

The Apprentice is highly instructive on many levels, but I’m particularly enthralled by the candidates’ approach to customer research. Every week, the candidates will usually talk to a small group of potential customers about their ideas. And each week I watch, slack-jawed, as the candidates utterly fail to listen to the customers. Ever.

People struggle with feedback

In the case of Apprentice candidates, they are so taken with their insane ideas that they seem incapable of absorbing any information that might result in a slight adjustment to their thinking.

‘Sure, they say it will never work but we can be the first to make it work!’ (‘Everydog: The one dog food for every dog!’)

Failing that, they just rubbish the research itself.

(On the men who hated their men’s magazine idea) “What we need to bear in mind is that our focus group was quite focused.”
(On the concept of Biscuits: The New Popcorn?) ‘What do 10 people in Cardiff really know anyway?’

(I’ve seen that one a lot)

Listening is hard.

Really, really hard.

Especially when all your hopes are pinned on one outcome.

How do you start to listen, when you’re so fearful of a negative response?

Untangle your ego from the process.

It needs a certain confidence to hold back from rushing to the answer, opening up the possibility of a different response.  Hearing the message and treating it properly.  Exploring the reaction and what drives it.

It is the hardest thing in the world to expose your precious ideas to scrutiny, and yet it has to be done.

We didn’t explain it properly.
The prop didn’t really give the flavour of the real thing.
They’re not really our target market.
Apparently Apple don’t do any research, and they’re the market leader.
People never respond well to innovative products.

All of these things have a degree of truth to them, and yet they’re not the whole of the matter.

You need to stop and listen, beyond the rabble of voices, the industry magazines and the Powerpoint analysis.  It’s not about blind reaction, it’s about thinking and sorting through the insights.  Listening creatively. And knowing your product. Placing your own strong emotions to one side.

Put some clear space around your idea.

Where is your idea, at its best? What are the strengths that could make it soar?  What are potential customers saying about it?  Do they care what it solves, how it’s used, when it’s delivered, whether it comes in blue, or whether they could really love it? How does it make people feel?

The clues are right there, if you listen carefully.


I’d love to know if you have any tricks for working through the feedback that you receive.  How do you decide what is meaningful and what is irrelevant or ephemeral?



February 8, 2011

Cute baby socks on a washing line

Laundry day, by iskir on flickr

When I was a wee researcher, I did an unholy amount of research on people’s laundry habits.   Much of this was done in standard focus groups.  Problem is, people posture like crazy in focus groups, especially when you wish to Get To The Truth of people’s deepest darkest washing habits.

So we also did in-home interviews.  I was dispatched with my Sony Walkman Professional to talk to housewives in grim London suburbs.  They had strict instructions not to prepare for the interview. Uhuh.

Scene 1

A kitchen with a blue lino floor that shone in the sunlight.   Daffodils on the windowsill.  Coffee provided in a neat mug with pictures of dogs.   A white plastic laundry basket full of sparkling clean clothing , and a discussion of delicates, silks, pre-treatment, after-treatment, boil washes, airers and detailed laundry schedules.

Scene 2

A basement kitchen with a concrete floor.  Piles of washing everywhere.  Tea from a chipped red mug.  Lady of the house in faded sweatpants and bunny slippers.  A dusty green laundry basket full of clean socks, babygros and T shirts that had taken on the same rough, grey-white washed-to-hell hue.

‘I put everything in at the same temperature,’ she said  cheerfully.  ‘I never bother sorting, I don’t really think it matters.’   We both looked at the pile of grey sports socks on the floor, and I nodded encouragingly.

Context matters.

I learned more about women’s lives (and indeed the politics of laundry) in those silly interviews than in doing focus groups for a year.  Sure, people were still putting on their best face, but in their own spaces you saw far more.  Stuff.  Context. Real lives. Polished-up, but  not magazine-ready.

There’s a lovely book by Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things, which examines 30 households in a London neighbourhood. He looks at material culture, the things that people own and the way that they display them, and he uses this to illuminate the stories he tells about the people who live there.

I think we should all get out more.


How to interview a customer (properly)

October 7, 2010 Doing Research

Ah, I know what you’re thinking.  D’oh!  Hah! Easy!  Just go ahead and ask them the questions! WRONG!  99% of people asked their opinion out of the blue stammered, blushed and then lied.  It’s a highly awkward social situation, and it goes roughly like this: MARKETER: (brightly) ‘So, what do you think of our shop?’ […]

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Does your survey reflect reality, or is it just wishful thinking?: Lessons from the Mirror of Erised

September 9, 2010 Doing Research

One of my favourite devices in the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is the Mirror of Erised.   Harry comes upon this old mirror one day, and when he looks into its depths, he sees his (dead) parents standing behind him.   His friend Ron sees himself winning at Quidditch.  The mirror, […]

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Social media peformance and the loss of the backstage discussion

May 18, 2010 Communication

I’ve been re-reading Erving Goffman, who wrote a seminal wee book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which Goffman wrote about our daily life as a series of performances – and indeed, a constant shifting between formal performances on the big stage, and informal ‘backstage’ chitchat. I’ve been working on a social […]

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The Dark Art of the Telephone Depth Interview

January 14, 2010 Doing Research

People aren’t very keen on telephone interviews.    The phone interview tends to be seen as the (deeply) impoverished relation of the face-to-face interview.  There are plenty of obvious negatives: on the phone, you have no eye contact, no body language, and precious little context. It’s true that the lack of visual information is a […]

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Early days in online communities: access and social presence

May 20, 2009 Communication

This is a model of research community socialisation that I developed in a white paper for Virtual Surveys a couple of years ago.   I was inspired by two sources: first, the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model of focus group dynamics that all qualitative researchers have drilled into them; and a similar five-step model developed by […]

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The basic qualitative interviewing kit, part 1

March 2, 2009 Doing Research

I’m on the road this week, for the first time in a while.  Just packing up and sorting through my supplies.  My current interview kit is so tiny that I’ve had to invest in a bright stripy pouch from Paperchase in order to stand any change of finding it in the bottom of my bag.  […]

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Are we allowed to talk about downloading?

February 12, 2009 Doing Research

A few months ago I ran some groups with the usual warm-up of discussing mobile and internet use.  The one difference between this and normal practice was that for this project, we rang up the attendees a few days before the groups and had a short conversation with them. The intention was merely to check […]

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10 tips for productive online conversations

September 30, 2007 Doing Research

I’ve been trying to have online conversations for a while now, in different spheres of my life, and here are my top 10 tips for running online forums and groups.  There may be more along later, but these are the ones that occur to me first. 1. Aim for an intimate public conversation Conversational style […]

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