What are we getting at in research?
People tend to think of research as something that you do in order to get data, or more broadly to solve problems, but there’s something else that research accomplishes, which is experienced within the process of research itself. When you’re involved in conducting research, either as a researcher or as a client, the process of doing the research changes you.
Despite the efforts to develop artificial intelligence, we remain human. We are not machines that can process information without being affected by it. Being in a room with other people, and having to grapple with what they’re saying, to listen to them, to hear them enough to respond appropriately, to engage with their experience, to enter into it and to want to find out more, changes us. We have to slow down. We have to put other things aside, and put aside what we think we know. We have to put aside the concepts and plans to which we have become attached, to be with the person being interviewed, even if we’re separated from them by a glass wall.
For the client of a research project, one of the most difficult things is to sit and listen to what people in an interview are saying. It’s even more difficult to listen when you’re not the person asking the questions.
The power of quantitative methods is the power of obtaining a large amount of data that’s standardized in an objective way, reduced to standardized frameworks. What it doesn’t allow for, in fact what data takes away, is thick involvement with the people who are actually having the experiences that the data represent. Data are always a representation of an interpretation of an aspect of the behavior that research is trying to understand. The actual behavior, and the motivation behind it, is full of complexity and conflict.
Those who take the trouble to pay attention to an interview as it is taking place gain a firsthand experience that goes beyond the simple acquisition of an answer to a question. They witness the struggle people go through to articulate an answer. They experience hesitation, doubt, and self-contradiction. They see moments of epiphany in which people make unexpected connections.
Interviews that are worth doing are hard work, but it’s in the work of an interview, rather than the plain information that it provides, that the greatest insights are gained.
Underneath the First Reason Why
When people in business talk about doing research, one of the things they often say is that the last thing that you ought to do if you want to understand why somebody does something is to ask them why they do it. It’s an apt warning, but the idea that people usually mean to imply with this statement is that research should focus on studying behavior, gathering data about what people do without worrying about setting up models. Don’t worry, they say, about trying to understand where people are coming from, culturally or psychologically. Just observe.
Another interpretation of this common piece of advice is possible, however. Looking at research from another perspective, we can consider that merely asking people why they do something is not enough. There is a deeper meaning to what people do, but one that the people we talk to don’t understand themselves.
In order to get to understand why people do what they do, we do need to ask people questions about what’s on their minds, but we can’t merely ask the simple, direct question: Why? In order to get to why, it’s necessary to go through several layers of questions, each layer revealing a little bit more of the truth as it dispenses with facile rationalizations. That’s what a good interview does.
A good interview is not a list of questions prepared ahead of time. It’s a process designed to probe with increasing depth, to build intimacy with a stranger, to help them to see things about their own behavior that they haven’t noticed before. It’s a special kind of conversation that enables people to understand things, and say things about their own lives that they didn’t realize they had to say.
The reason we need to have robust research techniques on both the quantitative and qualitative sides is that the mushy middle ground of simply asking people a direct question about their motivations and opinions won’t deliver the quality of insights that we need. In this particular historical moment, however, robust research development is taking place almost exclusively with quantitative methods. As a consequence of this imbalance, we’re in danger of losing the special power of immersive research.
When businesses think of research only as a tool to get information to be processed, they lose the opportunity for thick interaction with the people they serve. The reason that’s such a tragic loss is that the people working in those businesses are a part of the cultural dynamic that drives consumer behavior.
One of the things that happens with the current emphasis on quantitative data is that A/B tests show businesses that certain efforts to communicate with consumers work better than others, but don’t provide any means of understanding why the successful executions are successful. Businesses come out with different iterations, and test them, and when something works, they do more of that.
For a while, this approach performs quite well. However, in the process, people quickly lose track of what’s going on. So, before long, the business becomes an organization in which no one really understands why they’re doing what they’re doing. They company may become very economically successful, but no one working at the company will understand why they’re successful.
Imagine what it feels like to work at a company like that.
Employees of data-driven businesses like these can quickly lose all sense of purpose in their work, besides than the mercenary purpose of collecting a paycheck.
The Lost Tribes of Data
A company is much more than just a machine optimized to make money for its investors. A company is a culture.
Company culture isn’t just a message to be broadcast to its customers. It’s built cooperatively, through the interaction of the company and the customers it serves. The only way to nurture a genuine corporate culture is to ensure that people working at the corporation are in touch with customers, not just through chatbots, surveys, or quick focus groups, but through robust, immersive qualitative research.
If a business has research that doesn’t bring its people into intimate contact with its customers, the shared culture can split in two. In a short amount of time, over-reliance on Big Data can build a mountain between businesses and their customers. Customers become one tribe, living in a valley on one side of the mountain, while on the other side of the mountain, in another valley, the people working for the business continue to go about their lives as well.
These two tribes live just a short distance apart from each other as the crow flies, but they never get to talk to each other, because of all the data-driven automation standing between them. In short order, the two tribes develop almost entirely separate cultures. On those rare occasions when members of the corporate tribe meet members of the customer tribe, they barely recognize each other. In fact, they seem so foreign to each other that they find themselves unable to interact without inadvertently causing offense through the transgression of unspoken cultural boundaries. With frightening ease, the divided tribes can find themselves on the verge of war.
The purpose an interview isn’t merely to collect information. The purpose of an interview is to maintain contact, thick with cultural significance, between a company and its customers, so that no mountain of data being collected can form a divide between them. Even as quantitative methods increase in their analytic power and efficiency, qualitative research involving immersive, open-ended interviews remains an irreplaceable experience that delivers shared cultural perspectives no data can provide.