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.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Focus group participants... how often is too often

I'm breaking my own rule tonight, and rather than working on the bus, I'm writing this post from home. The bus home is always busy (and today was no exception), but the bus this morning was also packed with people who inexplicably felt a need to be heading to the city before the sun was up. As a result I got stuck on there without enough room to type comfortably.

Anyways, moving on...

Something I do fairly often in my job is put together recruitment screeners for qualitative projects. It's something I've done a lot of in my time working in research, and I'm generally comfortable with my grasp of why I would or wouldn't include certain people or groups.

As with anything in research however, my understanding only appears complete until someone asks the question I haven't heard before. I had that recently around standard exclusions. One of the common exclusions in qualitative research is people who have recently taken part in another project. We exclude them so as to avoid getting 'focus group junkies', who turn up and say whatever is needed to walk away with the money.

The question I was asked though was 'Once we exclude this minority, why leave other recent research attendees out of our current project'.

Working this through in my head, there are of course certain groups who should not be taking part... if we're running a project about light bulbs, anyone who sells light bulbs, manufactures them or has recently taken part in research about them should not be involved. If however, Joe Smith (32 year old accountant) took part in research last month about toilet paper, why shouldn't he now be able to give his thoughts about light bulbs? *

To which the standard response would be 'But he'll understand too much about how the group works, and will know what we're getting at...'

So what?

Consumers today are ever more informed about how companies develop information, and very little that we do is going to truly suprise them. As a result, there are likely to be very few people without some understanding of what we're trying to get at, no matter how smart we think we're being in putting together activities and approaching our topic from an oblique angle.

At this point I therefore come back to my initial question, asking why we should be excluding these people? Could we instead consider flipping it around, and saying we want people who understand group process, that we don't want to waste 10 minutes at the start explaining why we need to video record the group, but instead want to be able to use the limited time we have to get at the important information we're being paid to collect?

In my mind, there is no question we need to exclude focus group junkies. However, if we're talking about someone who fits the spec and is willing to come and talk honestly about their attitudes and behaviour, then we should be seriously considering including them in our current light bulb research project, even if they taste tested a new brand of mouthwash last week!

Just as a final point, notice that I did say consider in the previous paragraph. As with most things in research, your requirements will vary depending on the exact needs of your project, and you'll need to make your decision on that basis. All I'm suggesting, (and saying I'll do in the future), is consider which exclusions are really necessary, and which I'm putting in because 'it's what we always use...'

*Note: Topic and names have been made up, and I'm disappointed with myself I didn't come up with a better name than Joe Smith!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Employee of the Month (and other jollities)

Pretty much the first thing I do on waking up is check my email. Not a healthy behaviour pattern I know, but it gives me a couple of minutes to come to terms with the world in the morning.

Had a pleasant one this morning from my sister (gone to seek fame and fortune in the UK). She was apparently named Employee of the Month for her company. Very cool for her and thoroughly deserved as I know she works a hell of a lot harder than me! It did however made me think about the value of praise to an employee.

EOTM is of course a very formalised process, but I'm even talking about praise at the most informal level. I had a Psychology major at uni, and while I remember little of it, I do know that there are volumes of literature on how people respond to positive feedback. The short explanation is that there are very few people who do not enjoy some form of recognition, whether it be private (simple congratulatory email) or public such as for my sister.

The surprising thing for me is that there are companies or managers who do not take advantage of this. It is such a simple thing for them to do, and additionally, if someone in your team is publicly recognised as having done a good job, then that must reflect positively on your performance as a leader...

I think I've been very lucky in terms of the managers I've worked under during my careers so far, but one in particular stands out for me here. While in my case particularly, the success might have been primarily due to his assistance, he was more than happy to publicly recognise my efforts and promote this to the wider team (or company). Given the importance of a strong team culture to any organisation, this has really stuck with me and is still the template to which I measure others.

In short, if managing others, praise may not appear much to you, but do not undervalue its impact on the recipient!

And congratulations Jess!!!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Amateur sportsmen: The forgotten masses

I play amateur rugby. I have done for years. I've played at various standards and with varying levels of committment over that time, but it's been one of the few constants for me since I first started in Year 8.

One thing I have been wondering more and more over this time (particularly after wet weekends like this one just past), is why the hell do we do this to ourselves? Why throw ourselves around, put ourselves through this pain just for kicks???

You look at professional sportsmen or women, and whatever they do is justified by the fact that they're paid to be there and have an army of support staff to look after them and help to help maintain them in peak physical condition (with a caveat that if you're talking about Phil Taylor, peak condition means strengthening his throwing arm by lifting pints all night)!

Over the years I've been playing, I've seen countless players tear hamstrings, blow out shoulders and bust knees. While I can count myself relatively 'lucky' in having avoided anything too serious, I have missed games over the past couple of years due to back, knee and shoulder injuries. My current and last housemate were both rugby players, and both carried chronic injuries or pain they dealt with, which they had to work through each week.

My aim with this is not to whinge, more to illustrate the extents to which people go to play rugby (and amateur sport more generally, rugby is just the one with which I'm most familiar).

Looking back, a critical part of understanding my motivations can be observed by the decision I made when I moved back to Sydney at the end of last year. I had been playing in Canberra at probably the most serious level I had ever managed, and seriously considered joining one of the Sydney grade clubs to have (my last) shot at seeing what grade I could potentially make. My alternative was to play suburban rugby, at a decent but definitely much lower level, but with a very close group of mates.

While I did deliberate over this for a while, I realised that for me a large part of what I get from rugby is the enjoyment of playing with mates and the sense of community and cameraderie that comes from that. While it would no doubt have been fun to play grade, I couldn't go past the opportunity to play regularly with my mates.

That for me illustrates my motivations in playing amateur sport. I will put myself through the pain and discomfort because of the enjoyment of standing shoulder to shoulder with friends, and knowing that our experiences on the field bring us closer than anything else I've seen.

I'll put myself through a lot for that, and the moment that goes is the point at which I personally will hang up my boots...

Note: Thought I should add that in no way am I suggesting professional sportsmen and women don't play for the love of the game. I think you need passion for what you do to make it to the highest level in any endeavour. What I do say though is that once sport can support your life and family, the motivation to play and keep playing is irrevocably changed!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The value of time

What's my time worth?

I don't mean at work, where this is carefully calculated to cover overheads and salaries, I'm talking about my time once i walk out of that office door.

In recent years, i've become ever more protective of my free time, feeling like I have less available, and that I need to try and hang onto that which I have. Given my daily routine involves me walking out the door at about 6:15 to head to the gym, and getting home at around 7pm, I think that's a fair call... As with anything in this world, this means that it ends up becoming a value judgement on any given activity as to whether I can be bothered or not (which isn't to be honest the best basis for deciding if you do something).

Coming back to my initial question though, in the past week, I've had two different things that really illustrated to me where my attitudes stand now and how this has changed in the past few years.

The first of these was that, for the first time since I moved out of my parent's house in early 2006, I hired a cleaner. While this was something various housemates and I had discussed in the past, we had always previously ended up saying 'stuff it, we'll do it ourselves.' This was the first time that I clearly felt that the money it would cost to get someone in (once a fortnight, so not like we're getting carried away here) was worth less to me than the time it would take me to do the same job for myself... interesting, but let's continue...

The second of these was that some mates of mine are in the process of setting up a business, and asked me for some input into research they could use to support their business case. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how much they were hoping for from me, whether it was just some general advice, or at the other extreme to take it and run the project from them. What I did realise was that this was something I was willing to give up time to work on and discuss with them at length. I guess this does come with the caveat that they were bringing together two things that I genuinely enjoy, which were the practice of research and sport (their business idea is generally sports related), but at the same time... I do research all day, why do it when I get home too?

This brings me back to my initial point about the relative value of relaxation vs. something else. Looking at what I do now, I guess the simple response would be that I'm cherry picking the stuff I enjoy, which is a valid comment and I'd imagine true of most of us (before we start hitting the responsibilitie of family, kids, etc...

I guess what really interests me is looking at how the relative value of these has changed for me (and will no doubt continue to do so in the future)? As has often been said, the only constant in this world is change. Accepting that and assuming the demands on our time will continually increase leads me to ask where do I see myself five years down the track and where would I want to be?

The question for me now is how close are those two things to each other, and what can I be doing to bring them together more?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Why do research?

It is ridiculously cold at the moment... really has me questioning why I put myself through these early mornings! I promise you that there is nothing glamorous about leaving home before the sun is up. On the upside, thinking about my motivations for doing this got me to pondering the value of market research?

A basic premise of research is that you're going in with certain hypotheses about your audience or the market, which you then prove or disprove through your work. For me, the core reason why research is and will forever be valuable lies in how often these 'assumptions' prove to be somewhat or even totally  inaccurate.

This is where I feel we need to remember a couple of important truths:

  1. I am not the target audience - it is very easy to attribute my beliefs to the market, but if I'm talking to pensioners about their travel preferences or pregnant women about their impending motherhood, I need to learn enough to understand it from their perspective.
  2. I am generally not the typical consumer - despite wanting to feel like a 'man of the people', the truth is that neither a research nor client team are typical of their entire market. Yes, I can probably make valid comments about my own or similar segments, but I can't apply those across the board!
This was perfectly illustrated for me by a recent project into category purchasing behaviour. Both my boss and the client team were convinced that there were segments of people who followed clearly defined patterns. Completing the research, we realised however that my bosses hypothesis was based on his own attitudes and preferences, with this segment being very limited in size and that the segment described by the client just didn't exist...

This brings me back to my initial question. For me, the crux of research is that it allows us gain access to the wider population. As such part of the planning for any project should be questioning ourselves and our beliefs by asking:

  • "How might people be different?"
  • "Why am I not typical?"

PS. I'm still learning how the blog site works, so didn't finish this on the bus, but ended up typing the second half from the comfort of a nice warm office... :)

First steps

So, after thinking about it for ages i've finally decided to move from the realm of the reader to that of the creator.

Must say that i'm unsure about this, with a number of questions churning in my mind...who will bother reading it? will i have the motivation to stick with it? what value is it adding to the world?

In the end though, i've come to the realisation that for me, the interesting part is really seeing where this goes and having the ability to look back and see what stood out for me in any given week. I'd assume any given post could involve a mix of commentary on work, life, sport, market research and film among other things, and to be honest I can't wait to see how it all falls out...

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to 'bus musings', so named based on the fact that the one place I feel truly free to sit and think is my ride to and from work!