“People-Powered Research” in Consumer Insights

I was just reading an article in a back issue of Ode Magazine on “People Powered Research”  http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/71/people-powered-research/.   The concept is simple with regard to applied social research in the public sector:  If you are trying to solve a problem that is going to involve the people you are studying in applying the solution, then get them involved as early on in the research process to help develop the study.  This will help the research team get a firm understanding of the problem from a ground-level, applied human perspective and significantly improve buy-in and efficiency of application of the solution as the very people whose behaviors you are seeking to impact have skin in the game from the beginning.

I find this approach to be particularly applicable in consumer research, although not necessarily always readily adopted.   And it is slightly more involved as well.

For starters, brand teams often forget that the first audience for adoption and application of strategies that derive from the implications of consumer insight work is their own internal system of functional teams.  It is, therefore, extremely important at the beginning of any project to make sure the time is taken to engage stakeholders from a breadth of functions that touch the business; from research, to marketing, to external execution agencies.

When this time is taken at the beginning, as well as throughout the process (with team members present and active in research fieldwork, strategy and ideation sessions), efficiency of strategic implementation dramatically improves.  And not just from a speed-standpoint, but also with regard to application of all or most points of strategic recommendations…as opposed to the “chinese menu” selection approach that often happens if certain stakeholders weren’t personally invested in the work and feel threatened or challenged by certain insights or results.

I have found that some organizations do this better than others.  Toyota Motor Sales, for example, requires a Nemawashe process before the start of any project.  ( see an explanation here: http://www.gembapantarei.com/2007/03/the_art_of_nemawashi.html )

This process takes a little bit of time at the up front but goes a long way in ensuring a successful project.

I have also found that the more work you can do with consumers or consumer-facing experts (those who engage on a regular basis with the target consumer and have a right-to-a-point of view on culture and behavior patterns) in a hypothesis-formation phase of work before finalizing the scope of a research project, the better.

Most of the time in this business, you receive a one-page RFP that outlines the client’s best estimation of the problem they are trying to solve that asks for a fully baked solution in the form of a pretty tight proposal.

I often find it challenging to define a solution without having had the time to engage with client teams as well as conducting a deeper, more immersive and anthropological  / sociological dive into the sociocultural realities of the “universe” being studied.  It is why I often work with teams to suggest more loosely defined research scopes that include at least some level of exploration at the beginning of a project that will then help tighten up the research and strategy approach moving forward.

It means the pricing and scoping in a proposal are necessarily more of a straw-man approach open to shift once the project is started .  While it may be hard to stomach going in to a large-scale project with uncertainty, in the long run I have found over and over that client teams appreciate the higher quality of result even though the effort may take a little more time and a few more meetings.

I believe the research world is getting to a place where both clients and consultant teams are starting to take a step back from a speed-to-market based mentality to one of seeking first to understand and generally remembering the value of taking one’s time and involving more people in the process as opposed to isolated decision-making.

For me, it is one of the foundational processes of Consumer Anthropology and one I hope to teach and deploy with every client and team I work with.

As always, I am genuinely interested in hearing perspectives from other practitioners.  Do you think we can take notes from a more “People-Powered Research” approach?



2 responses to ““People-Powered Research” in Consumer Insights

  1. Jamie,

    Your use of the term nemawashi makes a lot of sense in focusing on how teams grasp project scope and develop the trust required for shared understanding. John Thackara’s book, In the Bubble, was the first place I ran across the term. As you rightly note, it requires more time. Trust and shared understanding aren’t things people can reliable assume without first building a context for them to occur within.

    Thanks for the links.


  2. Wholeheartedly agree! The fundamental need to establish what the ‘consumer’ wants and what they understand this to mean is critical to any project. As someone who is deeply engaged with consumer participation in health care reform I see a marked difference when the consumer has been engaged in a tokenistic manner at the implementation phase compared to when the consumer is seen as having unique expertise.

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