FreshMeat #7: If I Had A Hammer…Would Everything Look Like A Nail?

FreshMeat #7 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

If you build it, will they articulate their user needs?

Many years ago, some friends and I climbed a hill
overlooking the Pacific Ocean and talked about the future.
We talked about the Internet – this technology that was
going to likely change something, somehow. This could have
been a scene from a Douglas Coupland novel, but we were
more of a cynical bunch than the introspective protagonists
he favors. In sneering giggles we hypothesized various
ridiculous uses for the Internet.

“Oh, in the future, you won’t pay money to people, you’ll
just send it to them…through the INTERNET.”

“Yeah, yeah, and in the future, well, you’ll be able to
do ANYTHING. On the INTERNET. People who do research with
consumers will do their research on the INTERNET!”

Ahem. Does wisdom = attitude plus time, or is it simply
that there are no ideas so bad that someone won’t try
them? Because that skeptically envisioned future is here

In fact, the largest consumer of market research, Procter
& Gamble, held a press conference back in May to announce
their plans to do even more research, much of it
ethnographic. The best article I saw on the topic was in
the WSJ (“P&G Plans to Visit People’s Homes To Record
(Almost) All Their Habits,” May 17, 2001), describing P&G’s
history with this type of research, and the scope of their

Almost as an epilogue, the article described P&G’s ultimate
goal, the creation of an online library of indexed,
searchable video that could be accessed by marketers
from the comfort of their own desks.

And now, from September’s Fast Company comes an article about the future of online customer research, suggesting that eventually, all qualitative and quantitative research is going to move online. Quicker, cheaper, and more convenient, apparently.


Who said that getting closer to your customer was
supposed to be EASY? It’s hard, it’s very hard. If it comes
easy, that can be very dangerous, giving an organization a
false sense of empathy without really requiring anyone to
see something new, something beyond the unspoken assumptions
about their customers. This is often delivered as video
ethnographies turned into rock music videos, a collage
of quick cuts of “everyday people” chopping broccoli,
layered deliciously with a stirring P. Diddy soundtrack.

But at least there you get some (albeit false) version of
empathy. How much empathy can be created when you only
know your customer as Jeff_The_Best, SuperDiva, or
sexygirl2041? Online focus groups as qualitative research?
Say goodbye to all the rich unspoken cues – the body
language, the nervous laughter, the false starts, the eye

So video is better, right, it’s richer? It’s got all that
cool visual stuff. You can see how customers chop broccoli.
But anyone who’s ever watched a video ethnography knows the
insights are not simply flopping around waiting to be
scooped up – it requires inference, extrapolation, and
synthesis, more than simply watching. These are special
skills. If it were that easy, people like me would simply be
video camera operators – shooting some video of the clients’
customers and handing the tapes back to them. Innovation in
a box.

The truth is that there are a variety of tools to get at a
variety of data, to solve a variety of problems. Early
adopters of new methodologies would do well to keep a suite
of tools at their disposal. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow,
(or was it the Indigo Girls?) “If it seems too good to be
true, it probably is.”


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