David Bernstein : Underlying the headlines

David Bernstein follows on from Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s comments on how market research stifles creativity and asks you to read between the lines

Old joke: ‘Do you like Kipling?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve never kippled.’

New joke: ‘Do you like Frayling?’

Actually I do. I found being interviewed by him for a TV documentary a stimulating experience. You were never aware of an agenda. There was no rush to judgement, which makes his recent frayling (from the verb, to frayl: to speak in headlines) most puzzling.

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling was frayling at the Design in Business Week kick-off. ‘Market research is a deterrent to innovative design’, he said (DW 1 November). And he cited it as one of the heresies inimical to innovation.

Though market research can’t always tell you what customers want, the attempt to discover can’t be classified as heretical. And, in conversation, Frayling would surely qualify his remarks. But qualifications don’t make good sound bites.

It’s surprising that an academic, a rector indeed, encourages shorthand thinking. But then he probably restricts his frayling to public platforms. From that particular platform, as Design Week’s editorial pointed out, came another view of research from Ideo founder Bill Moggridge who ‘made an elegant case for research based on observation of how people behave rather than how they answer questions’.

How would you answer this question? ‘We’ve got this glue that doesn’t stick properly so you can have labels that you can put on and take off and move from place to place. Would you buy them?’ Fortunately for 3M, it never asked the question. Instead it observed how people behaved. It mailed secretaries (including mine) with the yet unbranded Post-It-Notes, suggested uses, invited them to try the product and suggest further uses for it – the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Alas, there is not always the time available to follow this path to understanding and we are thrown back on questions. And they can be loaded, often unintentionally. When a man seeks your opinion (so goes an Italian maxim) he is generally seeking your approbation. The respondent may react favourably because that will please the interviewer or unfavourably because he/ she is unusually in a position of some power. These are reactions, not to the question but the situation, difficult to assess in a one-to-one context, but exacerbated in a group. So much depends on the sensitivity of the facilitator (and that’s a better word than interviewer).

‘Would you buy it?’ may elicit a different response from ‘who do you think might buy it?’. In new product development, when boundaries and mindsets are being stretched, respondents may be reluctant to embrace the unfamiliar. Concepts by definition are not concrete. It isn’t, therefore it won’t be. In my experience the more tangible the research artefact – the object being tested – the better.

Long ago, in an attempt to hurdle an intermediate perhaps, a company refused to show a group an artist’s rough of a proposed product. Instead it provided a finished press ad, had it printed in a few copies of a magazine and informed the respondents that the product was already on sale in one region of the country and asked ‘would it succeed here?’

What Frayling should attack is not market research per se, but its abuse – doing it badly or for the wrong reasons. David Ogilvy famously said that research was often used in the way ‘a drunk uses a lamp post, not for illumination, but for support’. As a creative director, I was, of course, pleased when a front room in Chigwell answered our questions to our advantage. But of real value were the answers to questions we hadn’t asked.

I worked on the launch of a decongestant capsule. Each contained dozens of ‘tiny time pills’ coated with different thicknesses to provide continuous 12-hour relief. We were hooked on the technology and prepared long copy ads. One respondent said ‘It’s very interesting, but will it do anything for my cold?’ Had we not researched it, we would have had a lousy ad. But it should not have needed research to point out our error and to remind us that ads are about promise.

Qualitative research can be a valuable aid to creativity and judgement. It may provide leads for the former and guidelines for the latter. It can’t create and should never measure. The trouble is that most of us prefer to measure than judge, and it is tempting to count heads rather than interpret what goes on inside them.

Frayling knows all this, but can’t resist frayling.

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