Look again: How to fight data blindness

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Quantitative methodologies can tell you the what, but they often fail to tell you why, writes Possible's global chief strategy officer.

In the book "Blind Spot: Illuminating the Hidden Value in Business," authors Nathan Shedroff and Stephen Diller tell a story that perfectly dramatizes the problem with today’s over-reliance on quantitative data.

Years ago, a team at Levi’s was researching customer segments and became puzzled over something: While the brand is upscale, many of its customers are not. To find out what was going on, the team took a road trip in Texas and visited people in their homes. One of them was a single mother with two kids, Francine, who was clearly struggling. Yet every year, she bought Levi’s for her family.

The obvious assumption would be that she was vain and irresponsible. But when they met her, they learned she worked two jobs and was obsessed with her children’s future. Asked why she chose to spend precious dollars on Levi’s, she replied that she didn’t want her children to think they were poor and couldn’t achieve more in life.

This story serves as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that data alone is a sufficient tool to understand human behavior. Not every person fits into a neat category.

Quantitative methodologies can tell you the what (that lower income people buy Levi’s), but they often fail to tell you why (because they’re aspirational). They can’t tell you what motivates the large part of Prada’s customer base, which is not affluent. Or why many high-income people shop at big-box discount stores. Is it convenience, or because they don’t like overpaying? Only qualitative research will tell.

For decades, however, qualitative research has had a bad rap. It has largely meant focus groups, which can be a costly hassle. You have to recruit respondents, conduct interviews, and travel to different cities—all of which seem time-consuming and antiquated compared to statistical analysis of a rich data set. Product strategists and executives crave insight, but they don’t extend that desire to home visits, shop-alongs, and other person-on-the-street work. As a result, in the last 10 years qualitative research facilities have been closing, and quick-turn panels and mobile phone surveys have taken the place of traditional, on-the-ground methods.

But if we want to reach customers in an authentic way, we have to understand the true psychological motivation behind their behaviors. And luckily, we have some new and sophisticated ways to do just that:

Watch what people do, not just what they say. Behavioral economics has opened a new field for understanding human motivation. For example, many behavioral economists stress that quick and effortless, "System 1" thinking dominates the choices we make. The majority of people, most of the time, operate on autopilot. As a result, observing how they actually shop for things can provide deep inspiration for new services that improve store performance. For example, Newsworks’ award-winning "How People Buy" study literally looked through the eyeglasses of people shopping. It revealed, oddly enough, that many customers do research, not to find the best product, but to ensure that they won’t regret buying their preferred brand!

Co-create, don’t just evaluate. Research projects typically seek to evaluate concepts and pick a winner. A better idea is to bring people in early, and use their responses to influence design thinking. For example, innovative research firm System 1 Group seeks to improve ideas by putting emotional responses at the heart of their testing methods. This allows their customers (or potential customers) to help build on product concepts, not just evaluate them.

Get outside to understand your category. Person-on-the-street interviews have come a long way in sophistication. Today, production companies such as Snippies offer networks of professional videographers who can generate fast global feedback. Such surveys can give you insight into how people feel about products and brands, helping you move beyond the limitations of traditional tracking surveys and social listening data.

Of course, we know that data big and small isn’t going anywhere. With more sources of it and better analytic methodologies, business leaders are finding it easier and easier to extract value from data. But that is only part of the story—and not always the most important part.

Compelling insights and competitive advantage still come from getting out into the world to observe, converse and create with people. While positive results may not be as assured, the insights we can learn are essential—if we want to find out what really matters to our customers.

—Brandon Geary is global chief strategy officer of Possible.