Is Your Research Right?

Research is a great tool, but it needs to be understood to be used properly.

There’s a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that says “If I’d asked people what they wanted they’d have said a faster horse.”

It’s not clear whether he actually said this or not, but the sentiment was repeated by Steve Jobs, who told Business Week in 1998: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Research never happens in a vacuum.

This is one of the challenges with research. We all come to it loaded with our existing reference points and it can be hard to see beyond these. As the old saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. Or, to flip it on its head, we only know what we know.

This is why framing – how the research is carried out - is so important. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the context in which the research takes place can be a big influencing factor on the results you get.

What kind of responses do you want?

At one end, in the media and politics, this principle is often used more cynically to get the ‘right’ result by asking the ‘right’ question. It’s why two different polls can show what initially appears to be completely conflicting results.

When a business invests in research there’s not a bias preference. What’s required is genuine and valuable insight to help shape decision making. This means it’s essential to spend time and effort developing the approach appropriately.

And it’s important to appreciate that research is, to some extent, an artificial environment. Because most of the time you’re asking people to rationalise what are in reality ingrained and unconscious responses.

What we say and actually do is often very different.

If we’re asked whether we would support a good cause most of us will say yes. Because our logical, rational mind tells us that this is a good thing to do, it’s something we ought to do. But the reality is that many of us will not act on this statement of intent for a whole variety of potential reasons that we would find much harder to explain to an interviewer.

You can ask people if they’d like to be healthier and many will say yes in a research environment, but they’ll still go home and choose a night on the sofa with some snacks over going out for a run.

Research is a skill that needs to be got right.

This is not to say that research is not valuable, far from it. There’s no doubt that it can provide fantastic intelligence, providing it’s developed and used appropriately.

The more we understand about the dynamics of human behaviour in the context of research, the more effectively we can use it.