Do-it-yourself Misleading Research

In-house Research Gains in Popularity

Because of the proliferation of popularizing publications on the topic (especially recently with usability techniques), combined with economical pressures, many companies have taken to conduct research themselves without properly trained staff and experience. For similar reasons, and seeing in this a new revenue stream opportunity, many advertising/design agencies or business consultants without prior experience have started conducting research for their clients.

But contrary to the popular saying that "some research is better than none", conducting research without the proper expertise may yield misleading results.

Understanding consumer thoughts isn’t as simple as asking them what they think. Many companies have based marketing decisions on research through which consumers have expressed interest in purchasing or using a certain product or service, only to find that sales way outperformed expectations once it is launched in the marketplace.

Which Method to Use?

The decision of which methods to use in the first place really should be based on a sound understanding of which methods are most appropriate depending on the company’s objectives. Different research methods are appropriate at getting different kinds of data. Combining different methods enables companies to have a better understanding of the market and make safer, more informed, decisions.

While focus groups for example may be good at potentially uncovering insights into consumer behaviors, attitudes towards a product or service, or marketing communications, they can’t be used, for example, to make sales projection.

Research Objectives

The quality in terms of strategic information gathered from research can only be as good as the goals that a company has set out to achieve. With clearly established goals, research has the potential to provide new strategic directions for the company. However, companies who throw themselves in a series of research methods with a only vague idea of what they intend to look at will only gather information that is tenuous at best and risk getting results that simply confirm the company’s own assumptions.

Too often companies commission research only to confirm what they want to hear, based on their assumptions. This is not only a waste of resources, but when these assumptions are wrong; it results in stagnation or even in a set back of the company. This is often the case when managers will use research as a means to achieve internal political goals, with obvious bias. In worse cases, some companies to which research has been outsourced will deliberately skew the results to please their client and match their expectation. Supporting such activities is not only unethical but it hurts the research profession in general.

If companies are motivated by a genuine goal to improve their business by understanding what customers are really thinking, they must approach the research objectively and be ready to embrace the results, however unexpected they may turn out to be.

There Are Protocols

Just like in any profession, there are a number of established protocols to follow in any type of research method, and it is not only the knowledge of these protocols, but the experience in applying them, that makes all the difference. Believing that conducting research is simply a matter of common sense and that anyone can do it is ignoring decades of academic/scientific and professional research in various fields from cognitive psychology and anthropology to semiotics.

Apart from clearly defining research objectives and selecting the appropriate research method, there are a number of factors that can affect the validity and reliability of the results. This includes the selection of participants, writing screeners, field work, selecting the location, compiling, interpreting and analyzing data, writing a report, etc.

This is not to mention a number of ethical points of consideration such as confidentially, release forms, compensation to the participants, etc.

Example: Formulating Questions

Common to most research methods is the need to formulate questions, either in a questionnaire or discussion topics. This is one of the most frequent sources of misleading data, because many managers, underestimating the importance of formulating questions, will decide to write questionnaires or discussion topics themselves, even when outsourcing to vendors.

Whether for a survey, interviews or focus groups, questions not formulated carefully with a sound understanding of thought processes and how thoughts can easily be influenced will provide misleading results. Only the order in which questions are asked or topics are approached can influence the outcome. (Read more about influencing responses in future articles)

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Companies should be aware of the pitfalls of conducting research in-house and should be careful in outsourcing to vendors. This begins with understanding that there is science behind the research, and that the protocols are there for a reason.

Whether by using the wrong research method, by using untrained staff or outsourcing to the wrong vendors, research can drain a budget without providing any true returns on investment to the company.

But if conducted expertly, research can provide deeper insights into the true drivers of consumer behavior on which to devise more effective strategies.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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