Is it ‘be the fly on the wall’ or nothing?

I read something quite challenging last week. Challenging not because it was long and complex, in fact it was only a single sentence. Challenging because it goes to the very heart of what we do at Quirk as qual researchers, and really got me thinking. It was this simple line in Eaon Pritchard’s recent book ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’, attributed to consumer psychologist Philip Graves,

“…real sales data and covert behavioural observation should always be the start point of any research.”

Focusing on the part about covert behavioural observation (sales data is outside of my expertise), I think it’s hard to argue with this.  And if we accept it is as fundamentally true, these three words challenge us to think about what we do as qualies. Let’s look at each:

Behaviour: behavioural psychology and neuroscience tell us that behaviour pretty much trumps attitudes every time, and that in the past we’ve overemphasised the role of personality attributes and attitudes as drivers of behaviour. Understanding both the behaviour and its context is key (at the broad, cultural level, and the more immediate situational level), but too often ignored. So, to do effective research into human behaviour, we need to be there, in the moment, with people doing what it is we’re interested in. Which leads us to….

Observation: we know the moment you ask someone to explain their behaviour they post-rationalise, or if we ask them to speculate about what they might do in the future they’ll give us an honest answer, but it may or may not reflect what they’d actually do. We know that what they tell us is not going to be very useful (and could in fact give us a ‘bum steer’ as our American friends say). We’re relying on memories and speculation about future behaviour that is occasion specific, and often emotionally and sub-consciously driven. If we want to understand behaviour, then, we need to observe it, identify patterns and build models from there. The most challenging aspect of this as a researcher is that our presence can influence, even alter, the very behaviour we want to understand. Which leads us to the final part of the statement…

Covert: we are now in the position where a lot of behavioural data can be collected and analysed covertly, especially that captured via digital devices. But what about qual? Covert observation means we’d need to be the ‘fly on the wall’, observing people without them knowing. I’ve done plenty of that over the years – especially in retail and other built environments (airports, football stadiums, museums….), and it’s invaluable. But we can’t always do that. More often than not they know we’re there and have been recruited to participate in the research.

So, does that mean we shouldn’t bother at all if we can’t be that fly on the wall? I think not. But it does mean we do need to do a couple of things:

a. If we want to understand human behaviour, do it in context. And that means learning the art of (dare I say it) ethnography – and doing it properly. Observe people in person, ideally unaware you’re there, or in the very least unaware of why you’re observing them; don’t just ask them to ‘make you a video / take photos of [insert desired behaviour]’, think that’s enough and automatically treat the output as a true representation of that behaviour – remember it’s a performance that has been curated for you by the participant themselves; and when you interview them, don’t ask them why they do things (they don’t know!), instead talk about feelings, language, meaning, similarities and differences, and so on – not explanations. It’s up to us to work out the what and why (it’s called analysis).

b. Not everything we do is about behaviour. Often we are after a reaction to something from our target consumer (e.g. to a new ad campaign). If that’s the case, focus on capturing reactions and ‘snapshots’ not considered responses, opinions, or speculation on the future. Don’t go in thinking we are ‘testing’ the idea (that’s what experiments and test markets are for). And find ways to combine the conscious questioning techniques we employ in groups and interviews with methods, such as neuroscience, that capture sub-conscious reactions.  That way you get closer to the complete picture.