At ground level here in London there are streets and there are people, much as in every other city. But below all this, deep beneath the lights and shops, there is the dislocated world of our metro system we call the ‘tube’.
As the trains rattle through these underground passages, there are thousands of people, but there is little interaction. Rather than acknowledge the pressing crowds, we stand inert or sit with our knees held close together, as we attempt to stretch the narrow distance between ourselves and others.
In this way we deal with the harsh proximity of our fellow passengers, people who are a muddle of triggers for our prejudices and passions.
But, of course, there is more to these journeys than closure to the outside world.
Far from attempting to ignore the other commuters, there is instead a hidden hungry evaluation of the lives that are placed so close to our own. We are all adept at reading the small signals of a person’s class and character; their grooming, choice of clothes and newspaper. We can observe and judge their diet from the branded foods on their laps and follow the way they hold their transport-bruised bodies.
Vision through layered observation
For those of us who work with market research data, the passion for understanding and exploration is the same. Market research presents an opportunity to gently unveil the character and motivations of consumers and markets.
The difference is that the reach of our vision is more profound than the insights we glean from our trains and streets. As we turn over the findings, and mentally place into position each discovery, it is possible to shape a more-or-less three-dimensional understanding of our markets and customers. We turn our respondents in our hands with the same urgent need to comprehend, to see beyond the obvious, and to take sight of the nuances and subtleties of their motivations
Hence, what is often so surprising in market research reporting is the rush to remove the textures from the observations. To reduce the rich dimensions of groups of consumers to flat labels and generalisations, as if the finely-honed mental processing that we all possess, and test so keenly on our morning commute, is of no value or somehow inappropriate in the context of data presentation.
Keeping the textures in groups and profiles
One of the areas where I most frequently see an unnecessary rush to simplification is segmentation studies.
I am a great believer in the power of this work, with all of its rough groupings and compromises. They represent a means of approaching the complexity of human behaviour and classifying relationships with brands and categories. I also believe the understanding of segments can be aided through thoughtful labelling and descriptions.
However, if a group has been identified as ‘quality conscious’ that need not mean the role of convenience as a secondary influence is of no importance.
And to state simply that they are predominantly female, when over a third is male, merely encourages interpretation of the behaviour through the lens of gender, rather than through the dynamics of the variables on which a group has been clustered.
And, perhaps the biggest distraction of all is the use of poorly chosen illustrations and photos of ‘typical members’.
These pictures often embrace our society’s preference for beauty, and aspiration. The result is attractive people in harmonious environments. The inadequacy of this is often apparent when we take the time to explore these polished simplifications against the segment’s responses to questions of demographics, attitudes and behaviours.
These models are sometimes unrecognisable in the harsh outlines of the true ‘typical’, often a place many of us marketing professionals have never visited.
Clarity, not simplicity
We should not be afraid to understand the complexity of our markets and their groupings, particularly when this speaks of the true human condition with its contradictions and exceptions. But where we have responsibility for communicating our data, we should feel the need to represent this complexity in as accessible a way as possible.
The target should be clarity and not simplicity.
Market research studies are not typically burdened with the complexity of their data. The problem is, instead, the limitations of its scope and dimensions.
We often compound this error by representing behaviours in isolated and flat forms when we have the resources to provide a richer picture. If we care about sampling errors and significance testing in our market research reporting, why are we so accepting of the error that comes from reducing data to simple text? Or the error that comes from colouring our findings with illustrations that are a poor fit to the textures of our groups?
To a large degree we should be content to let data talk of its own shape. If we are unhappy with its communication, then we should look at the form and manner of how we have structured and delivered it. It is not the granularity of data that is its problem - that is its strength and it should be jealously preserved. Words should speak of interpretation and action, but the rich dimensions of data should be given their own place from which to talk. Otherwise we risk replacing understanding with generalisation.
This morning I was again on a train, rattling through the deep underground passages of London. I was seated between tourists in heavy knit pullovers and grey city workers with crisp white shirts. As I stared absently at my tired reflection in the window opposite, I wondered just how much was being given away to those silently evaluating me.
I pulled my bag closer to my chest and silently questioned, ‘Why are we so good at dissecting those around us, but we struggle to portray these layers in market research? Why, when we thrive on the freedom to observe, do we choose to hide so many pieces of the puzzle when we are dealing with our targets and consumers?’
Top image : 123rf