Thursday, 7 November 2013

Ode to my plant

I got a plant from Rowan, and I really, really tried
I gave it plenty of water, sun and Children Collide
I really wanted the Veuve, so I have to admit I lied
No green thumbs for me, the truth is my plant died...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

4 learnings from the gym that I can apply to research

I was embarrassed last week when one of my colleagues was flicking through my different online accounts and came across my blog. This wasn’t because the last article I wrote was a review of the Hunger Games (I still think it’s a great film!), but was more due to the fact that I posted the review on the 25th of March 2012. Given we’ve now reached the 3rd of December, it’s been a long time between drinks!

This did however spur me into action, and led me to actually sit down and write a post I’ve been considering on and off for months. As I trawl around the web, a popular approach seems to be looking at how learnings from broader life can be applied to business. Let it never be said that I can’t jump on a bandwagon, so without further ado, here are four learnings from my time in the gym that can be applied to market research.

1.         Planning is critical
Australia is at the start of summer, and gyms around the country are being swamped by a deluge of pasty people emerging from the cave they’ve been hiding in. While some know their way around a treadmill, many of them have been seduced by late night infomercials promising six packs and a toned butt in just 2 weeks.

Based on my highly scientific observations (wandering past the bikes on my way in and out), most of these people come in, sit on a bike at a gentle pace for half an hour, and then end up hugely disappointed when they don’t start dropping kilos immediately. They fail to appreciate that you need to come into the gym with specific goals in mind, and then tailor a program that will help you meet these in a realistic timeframe.

To my mind, this can be directly translated to research, where the wrong technique, a poorly framed sample or unrealistic timeframes can sentence a project to failure before you lift a finger. As with the gym, you need to start with your end goals in mind, and then continue to review and update your approach as you go.

2.         Learning never ends
I started going to the gym in about 2001, and have been a consistent visitor since 2008. While I do have standard programs, I like to mix up the drills or exercises I might do on any given day, both to avoid boredom and to stop my body getting too comfortable with a routine. This could involve completely new exercises, as well as variations on what I’m already doing that might be more effective, safer or targeting a slightly different area.

To help me with this, I’m constantly watching both instructors and other patrons (in a non-creepy way of course) to see what they’re doing, and pick up ideas that I can incorporate into my training. Whilst I’m not using everything I see, knowing what is out there allows me to make an informed judgement about what will be most effective in my personal workouts.

Similarly, research is constantly changing and evolving, with the development of new approaches and the improvement of existing ones. While not all of these are worthwhile, knowing about them, understanding how they work, and seeing when they might be applied is critical for me to be able to confidently tell a client what I feel they should use to solve the issue they are facing.

3.         Sometimes you need expert advice
While I’m generally comfortable with my overall approach, one area that I really struggle with is flexibility. To help me with this, I’m currently one week into a three week stint with one of the PTs at my local gym. He’s helping me work on some drills that despite making me cry like a little girl should improve my overall flexibility and take pressure off some of the joints.

While I do regularly stretch and work on flexibility on my own, the work I’m doing with him is more technically advanced and needs to be carefully set up and managed to avoid doing harm instead of good.

Working in research, the need for expert input is a constant reality. When I say this, I’m looking beyond senior input for more junior researchers, but thinking about the need to tap into subject matter experts. An obvious example is advanced quantitative analysis, with many agencies outsourcing complex analytics such as Choice Modelling. While I may be able to explain the model to my client, the involvement of the expert in the creation and implementation is critical to the success of the project.

4.         Junk in, junk out
Strange behaviour is common at the gym. To me, this includes the people who stand around a piece of equipment talking, without bothering to do an exercise, through the (generally) guys doing nothing but bicep curls to the (generally) women having a leisurely stroll on the treadmill while chatting away to their friends.

While all of these people would finish their training and head off to work or play feeling like they’ve had a good workout, the reality is that they’ve pretty much wasted their time. This is based on a pretty simple equation... more effort expended = more benefit, which feels fairly intuitive to me.

While this might be most easily applied to the level of work put in by researchers, I want to look at it in a slightly different way, in terms of inputs into the research process. This could include anything from your sample of participants through to your questionnaire instrument or discussion guide. If these are not clearly envisioned and fully developed, they will not meet the goals of the project and you will probably end up wasting a good chunk of someone’s money.

What does this mean?
To me, the main message to take out of this is that the basics remain the same regardless of what you're doing. Having more information or knowledge is always a good thing, and regardless of how much you know, there will always be times that you need help from someone else!

What learnings from life would you like to apply to market research?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

May the odds be ever in your favour!

I’ve been seeing a lot of movies over the past couple of months. One of the big chains here offered a deal in early Jan that you could buy $7.50 tickets (way cheaper than usual), which could then be used up until the end of March. I decided to get in on this in a big way, buying 20 tickets to be used in eight weeks. The deal is due to end on Wednesday (28th), but I’m pleased to say that as of Sunday afternoon, I (with the assistance of various friends), have made it through all 20.

While I’ve mainly enjoyed this, I know the reason they did it was because they knew it would be a quiet couple of months and were just desperate to get people through the doors. This means that while I’ve seen some good films, I’ve also seen some that were crap, and some from which I expected a lot more from than they were able to deliver (THE GREY).

Anyways, what I wanted to focus on today is some thoughts coming out of my experience on the weekend. I, along with three friends (and hordes of teenage girls) went and saw THE HUNGER GAMES. Three of us had read the books, while the fourth hadn’t, and it was really interesting to see how our responses to it differed.

Hollywood’s desperation for new, different or marketable stories means that the translation of books to movies will be an ongoing topic for discussion in the community. Realistically, this is nothing new, with the Academy Awards having included a prize for Best Adapted Screenplay since their inception in 1929 (for those who are interested, the winner was Benjamin Glazer for SEVENTH HEAVEN).

Where this becomes tricky however is when you have a book or series of books that have a highly devoted following in print, who have certain expectations of the film based on their reading of the story. Where this is done well, you have films that shatter box office records, and become instant classics. Perfect examples of this are the LORD OF THE RINGS films, and more recently the TWILIGHT phenomenon. Whilst I must admit that I haven’t seen any of the TWILIGHT films, my girlfriend is obsessed and won’t hear a word said against them!

The difficulty for filmmakers and studios is when the adaptation is felt to stray from the original material. I’m an avid reader of the Jack Reacher novels, and there has been a lot of discussion among fans about the casting of Tom Cruise to play a 6 foot 5, 250 pound former military policeman... to the extent that Lee Child has had to come out and provide both the rationale behind as well as his support for the casting decision (

That weird casting choice aside, one of the reasons why the translation of novels to films is so tough is because of the level of detail generally evident in books, as well as the ability to explain a character’s mental state or cognitive processes without them needing to verbalise it. The 90-120 minute running time generally available to a film means that directors generally won’t be able to include all of the elements from the book, having to compress or cut characters or scenes for expediency. While, as I mentioned above, LORD OF THE RINGS was massive, there were people complaining about elements of the book that got removed. This is also one of the reasons why THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read, has not been satisfactorily turned into a movie. The best way to treat these is often as a TV mini-series or similar, because that gives a director the time to fill out the detail, and explain the back-story of the different characters and events.

All of which brings us back to THE HUNGER GAMES. As I said, three of us had read the books before seeing the film, and while we all enjoyed it, we agreed that there were elements of the book that weren’t included that gave us a better understanding of what was going on, which actions were relevant or meaningful, and why certain characters acted the way they did. Although my friend who hadn’t read the books was able to enjoy the film on a surface level, I think he was limited by his lack of context, and I feel this is a shame.

With that said, the fact that HUNGER GAMES has globally taken $214.25 million on its opening weekend (including a monstrous $9 million weekend in Australia), guarantees the sequels will be with us as promised. This should hopefully give the director the opportunity to bring in some of the broader back stories, and introduce characters who were missed out in this first episode.

In summary, a cool film to see, enjoying a very strong cast (Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrellson  all play their characters brilliantly), and I’ll definitely be heading back to see CATCHING FIRE when it’s released (currently scheduled for 22 Nov 2013). My one suggestion would be to read the book before heading along. I think that makes for a much richer experience, and will let you sit back and just enjoy seeing some great characters brought to life!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Don't worry, be happy!

Well... despite me having the best of intentions of a new start on this blog to go with the new year, here we are at the end of March and this is the first blog posting I’ve actually completed. I’ve started writing a number of times, but hadn’t so far actually got anything to the point that I’d be comfortable with other people reading it...

Anyways, best not to dwell on my failings as a writer, and instead move onwards and upwards... to quote Buzz Lightyear... “To infinity and beyond!!!”

A couple of things recently have got me thinking about the role of milestones in tracking our movement through life, and from that going on to what these milestones really mean when you start thinking about them in more detail.

The first of these is my ‘baby’ brother turning 18 (I can call him my baby brother because I know there’s bugger all risk of him every reading this!). I think this is a change that’s as shocking for anyone who’s known me a while as it is for me. We all have this image of him when he was about knee height, and are struggling to accept the fact he’s grown up. With that said however, the reality is that he’s finished school, taken his first job and is fast moving towards becoming a productive member of society.

BUT... despite all this, in what way is he any different today to what he’ll be on his birthday tomorrow? I’ll point out here that I’m well aware that turning 18 will mean he can legally purchase alcohol, but based on my experiences at that age, and the few stories he’s let slip, I don’t think this is much of an issue...

The second one is that my girlfriend is in the process of moving into my place. Symbolically this is a very big step in our relationship (up there with going Facebook-official). Thinking about it in more detail though, it won’t actually be too different to how we’ve been living for a while now (apart from reducing her cupboard space significantly – sorry babe!).

Why do these stand out for me you might be asking? Mainly because they are ‘milestones’ that are seen as highly significant steps by society, but won’t in either case actually mean much in the way of real change for the people experiencing them. These are two examples that I was very easily able to pull off the top of my head, but I (and I’m sure each of you), could easily come up with plenty more. Each of these is guaranteed to incite a response from those around you, but when you think about it, they don’t by themselves change who you are, how you feel, what you do...
At this point, you’re probably asking, what’s my big message today?

Society is built on the premise that we are constantly working towards ‘goals’ or ‘achievements’, and it often feels like we need to reach these to be able to celebrate or acknowledge that we have 'changed'. While this is valid, the problem for me is that it often feels like it is being taken to the point that we forget to celebrate the ‘everyday’.

I think it would be nice to spend more time recognising how far we’ve come or how well we’re going (even if no one else seems to be paying attention). Yes, there will be times where there’s a big obvious improvement that can be celebrated, but we shouldn’t need this to validate ourselves or prove that we are successful/happy/insert preferred emotion!

In the immortal words of Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy”.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Appearance is everything

A huge amount of research has been done into the way people process information. This has looked at the way we learn, how we apply existing knowledge to experiences, even how you can have a guy in a bear suit run straight through the middle of a video without people noticing him.

One thing that has come out of all this research that I find interesting, is information about how we assess and deal with the people around us. A significant proportion of our response to people is based on appearance, with people constantly making assumptions based on someone's look or actions.

I've had a great deal of experience of this phenomenon personally. As someone who stands over 6 foot, and weighs around 100kg, I'm fairly solidly built. During my uni days, you could add any combination of dark hair, lack of shaving and ratty clothing to that list. As a result, I could guarantee that the empty seat next to me on the train would be the last one filled. It became a running joke for me with my parents, particularly once I started working in an office job, and could compare this response, to the one when I swapped the jeans for a suit.

Another example came up recently when I was talking to some relatives about one of my cousins. During his teens, he went through a goth phase. This was more than ten years ago, and he's moved on to other things now, but they recently found out that the daughter of a family living down the road would cross the street if he was coming towards her. We're talking here about someone who had known him before this phase, but still responded in this way to the changes appearance.

This sort of response is very interesting to me (Psych major at uni), and amusing to play with (juvenile mentality), but also has a serious side. How does this apply to working life, and more importantly how do we alter our appearance to portray ourselves in particular ways to the people we deal with. This can relate to any setting, from our social interactions with friends, to the way in which you present yourself in a work setting towards your colleagues, managers and clients.

As a general rule of thumb, people will seek to adopt a specific style, usually aiming to match the general look of the group with which they are interacting, seeking social acceptance through homogeneity. Classic examples of this are the 'what are you wearing tonight' phone calls/conversations that start happening at about 5pm every Friday or Saturday night and the 'blue shirt brigades' wandering around the financial districts of any major city...

While this can again be amusng to observe, it has serious applications in market research. In the past, I have in one week, gone from a presentation to a client wanting advice on future business directions (suit and tie), through a casual debrief with an advertising agency wanting feedback on their new tv campaign (shirt and slacks, no tie), all the way down to interviews with homeless kids about how they ended up on the streets (t-shirt and jeans).

While this is taking the most extreme examples, it perfectly demonstrates the diversity of situations that might be faced. I can guarantee that if I turned up to talk to the street kids in a suit and tie, there is no chance they would have been as willing to share their stories, and if I turned up to the client presentation in jeans, that they would place severe question marks on any recommendations I might have made!

In summary, while content can overcome appearance, the two operating in unison can definitely serve to strengthen a message or connection. Keep this in mind, and always think carefully about who you're dealing with and how you want to be seen!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Supplier to trusted adviser

It's been a couple of weeks since I last posted. They've been a bit up and down, with some family issues and a generally high level of tiredness. I've tried writing, but have either struggled to even get words down, or have  got to the end and decided I shouldn't subject anyone else to that drivel! Today however, for the first time in a while, I was able to sit down on the bus and have it flow, which was a really nice feeling!

Anyways, what I was thinking about this morning was a brief we had come in from a client. They are looking to do a new project, exploring similar issues to a current project, but with a different segment of their customer base. When we started going through it, we've realised that the brief suggests taking the existing design and replicating this, with little consideration of its applicability to this other segment.

The reality is that it's not, with the online survey used for segment 1 needing to be replaced with CATI for segment 2. This was based on the relative strengths  of online and CATI, which are interesting (and evolving) in themselves, but that's something I'll explore at a different time.

What it also got me thinking about though, is how clients and agencies should be working together to conduct research. In a perfect world, it would be a collaborative process where we would be discussing their business with them, would identify an issue, and would then sit down together and talk about what they need to resolve it, and the best way to uncover this information.

In reality, they usually write a brief to specify that they want an online survey of n=200 turnip purchasers, split by those who use them for soup, turnip crumble and a source of clothing dye. The result of this being dictated in this fashion however, is that it's all too easy to accept this as the design and considering the research on a very functional level - "How can we make this work?" Instead of this, the first step should be to step back, and question all aspects of the brief in the context of existing client knowledge, to determine what they really want and how this can best be obtained.

My issue with this approach, is that it looks to me that although they come to us for 'insight', there is still in their minds a clear divide between 'us' and 'them'. They are the buyers of research, and our role is to give them what they ask for.

This is not a new issue, with a lot of articles out there talking about this phenomenon and discussing potential approaches that can be adopted. The language used here is around the challenge of becoming a "trusted advisor" to your clients. In lay terms, this means that you're in the room when they realise they have a problem, you go off and explore it in more detail, and then you're involved in the conversations around how they do or don't implement your recommendations (and potential complications).

This also isn't an issue faced solely by research agencies. I was having lunch a couple of weeks back with a good friend who sells cloud products to large businesses. He used the exact same language describing where he wants to be in terms of his relationship to his clients.

What I do think though is that this move to change our positioning 'supplier' to 'adviser' is one of the big issues facing research. As many aspects of research become increasingly commoditised, agencies need to be able to offer something beyond the data, need to demonstrate the value of our thinking and not just accept that what the client says they want is what they really need.

In short, challenge them, question their needs and force them to think about the real value that we can deliver to their business!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fight fans baying for blood... actually not!

To start off with today, I've got an admission I'd like to make... I'm a big fan of mixed martial arts.

For those of you who are unaware of what this is, it's the sport that puts two competitors in either a ring or a cage, bringing together elements of such disparate arts as boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

This is a sport which is frequently denigrated, being likened in places to 'human cockfighting', with many legislators working hard to ban it in their jurisdictions.

Now make no mistake, fights can be brutal. Like any generalisation however, this does not tell the full story. I have no doubt some fighters and fans come to it with this mindset, however listening to the majority of fighters talk about their backgrounds, interests and training demonstrates that for them, this is something more. This is their chance to make a living out of what they love, providing them with the opportunity to test their skills in the ultimate proving ground. This is something that appears easily ignored, particularly in jurisdictions which restrict or ban events such as NY in the US, or Victoria in Australia.

What I would like to discuss here though is the fans watching the fights.There is a frequently held perception that MMA fans are bloodthirsty individuals who use it to fuel their rage, before running amok on the streets.

As I said at the start, I'm a big MMA fan, and I have many friends who are too. Speaking for myself, as a somewhat educated, relatively well-spoken member of the community, (who has never personally been in a fight), for me they are about two guys climbing into the cage for the ultimate physical confrontation. No one to help them, nowhere to hide. Each off them will stand or fall on their preparedness, game plan, training and commitment.

My friends and I, can and do appreciate the technical ability of the fighters. We want to see exciting fights, but that does not automatically equate to a bloodbath!

The point I'm making here is that, as can be seen in so many other places, generalisations are both silly and dangerous. You cannot assume negative behaviour, based on your dislike for, or disapproval of something. In the same way, people with positive attitudes towards something are often willing to ignore or dismiss negative behaviours, viewing them as aberrations (to be explored in more detail in a future post). In the end, what I'm trying to say is as much as possible, judge people and situations on their merits rather that pre-assigning them negative characteristics.