Observing the observers – Geert Teunkens

As consultants in customer experience, in order to deliver successful projects, it’s crucial to deeply understand people’s needs. This is exactly what qualitative researchers try to obtain.
Traditionally, they master techniques such as in depth interviews, client observations and focus groups to examine the “why” and the “how” behind human decision making. It’s only after answering these questions that businesses can organize themselves to provide a meaningful product or service.

That’s why I headed to Berlin to participate in the European leg of the Qual360 conference, where companies like Coca cola, Land Rover, Sky, Shell, Delivery Hero and Barclaycard shared their latest research projects. Here’s what I learned observing the observers.

Evolve and transform
Qualitative researchers are often hired to assess how new technologies such as IoT or blockchain can impact the lives of their clients. Ironically, the ever increasing need for fast insights and the availability of new big data streams is disrupting the industry of qualitative research itself.

  • Biometrics September Strategie & Forschung showcased how they translate biologic reactions (pulse, frowning activity, brain wave activity, skin conductance) into emotional patterns, allowing to drastically reduce research phases from weeks to days.
  • Ericsson Consumerlab shared how providing participants with Virtual Reality goggles can allow focus groups to step outside of the meeting room and enable worldwide recruitment. This will not come without new challenges; try moderating trolls who prefer to run around the virtual room or shouting into your face.
  • Respondi performs Digital Anthropology by analyzing streams of url’s visited before and after online purchase events, providing clear views on which elements influence purchase intentions

How can qualitative researchers survive in a world where millions of social media comments can be analyzed & visualized in minutes? Where each click, eye movement or swipe can be tracked and interpreted automatically? Where precisely targeted micro-surveys can reveal client frustrations instantly? Although many of these techniques add significant value in the research process, there are certain capabilities which will not easily be mimicked by any piece of code.

This was illustrated with an ethnographic case study, presented by BAMM.

Hanging out with truckers
Truck lubricants. It’s hard to image an industry less likely to be associated with emotions or love brands, yet it serves as the perfect scenery to illustrate the power of ethnographic studies.

Shell Lubricants realized that the main decision makers in their segment are truck drivers themselves. This is why they launched a global study in nine markets where ethnographers were tasked to simply spend time with truck drivers. A journalistic approach with limited guiding questions was applied. The main goal was to let the truckers do the talking to get an insight in their lives, struggles and motivations. What does their life look like? What worries them on a day-to-day basis?

Why would any company spend a research budget on this kind of study, you ask?

Recruitment – Truck drivers are a hard audience to reach since they’re simply always on the road. Good luck inviting them to your headquarters or to get them to fill out a survey! Simply hanging out at a petrol station proves to be far more efficient.

Cultural immersion – In order to get a realistic view on the day to day lives of your clients, its key to meet them on their turf. It is only by joining them in their favorite hangout spots – bars, bedrooms, hair dressers, truck stops – that you can observe them in their roles as fathers, friends, heavy business travelers, medical patients… without pulling them out of their daily lives.

Honest responses – To really find out what’s going on in the lives of your clients it’s crucial to get them to relax and to open up. Meeting them in their natural context is a great way to catch them in their downtime. It’s very likely they will open up about sensitive topics such as stress or loneliness over a cup of coffee. Financial incentives are not needed and can even cause the opposite effect.

Visual input for the office rats – Seriously now, how much time have you spent outside of the office walls in the past months talking to an actual customer? What about your customers in Brazil, India or China? Applying photo journalism will result in rich materials to be distributed throughout your organization. Video documentaries or 360° visual recordings can serve as the best proxies for the real deal. Just put a Google Cardboard on the nose of your marketing director to beam him straight to a truck repair shop in a remote corner of the world, with moving images and surround sound!

Will these studies result in an immediate ROI? Maybe not. Indirectly however, they will serve as input for customer strategy and branding. They can serve as a strong catalyst to enforce a customer centric culture, trigger ideas going far beyond your current product or service. Based on this exercise, Shell is investigating to roll out eye-tests, medical and mental support for their drivers. They are thinking of ways to tackle loneliness or boredom both for truck drivers as well as their families.

To conclude, the keyword for user research is triangulation; combining multiple research techniques.  The lines between qualitative and quantitative research are blurring and rightly so. Digital alternatives to broad-scale studies are becoming available and deserve to be embraced, while traditional techniques are still highly in need to uncover meaning behind the data.

Would you like to know more about qualitative research in general or the mentioned case studies, don’t hesitate to reach out!

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hedera-adminObserving the observers – Geert Teunkens