Embracing an era of just-in-time research

This post was sponsored by Kadence.

Elon Musk is famous for making bold bets with clients and customers. Just this year he bet the South Australian Government that he could build the world’s largest solar energy plant in less than three months, or the plant is free of charge. A bet he is looking to win. Another impressive feat was Musk moving from feedback to action within 6 days.

In December 2016, an exasperated Tesla owner tweeted Musk with his frustration at people leaving their Telsa’s at the Supercharger once fully charged, blocking the space for others. Musk’s response 20 minutes later: “You're right, this is becoming an issue. Supercharger spots are meant for charging, not parking. Will take action.” And he did. Within six days, Tesla had introduced a US$0.40 charge per minute that a car is left fully charged.

Musk embodies a growing demand for fast, agile decision making by consumers and clients. In the modern world of near-instant communication, excuses for slow decision making become harder to justify.

One common excuse is that we don’t know enough. We need more information to make the right decision. The answer then can be to undertake some research to help frame the choices, and guide the decision.

The four-week wait

This is where, alas, research is increasingly behind the times. I offer an example: at a former job at one of the largest research agencies in the world, we would undertake the brand tracking for our clients. When asked for a report, it was common policy to suggest a debrief date four weeks in advance. Now let’s just break that down, we were already doing the tracking, so we already had their data. The setup and planning of the research was long completed. And yet it still took four weeks to create the presentation.

This is not meant to decry my former employer; those four weeks were often a stressful race to interpret hundreds of thousands of data points and synthesise them into a meaningful answer to the clients’ question. But, still, let’s be honest, four weeks just doesn’t cut it any more. Especially when Elon Musk can implement a drastic new policy in under a quarter of the time.

In the client’s eyes those four weeks were always a black box of impressive sounding words. The data is first cleaned to remove outliers and incorrect responses; then formatted to a file that is easy to manipulate; then analysed to pull out the most interesting points; then finally laid down in a presentation – most likely through PowerPoint.

All of these internal processes have a role, and the presentation could not come together without them. But in many research agencies these processes are split apart across an inter-departmental, and often international, workforce meaning that efficiencies of scale and process come before speed and agility.

The omnibus effect

I’m not, however, here to attack research agencies. The blame goes both ways. Clients are adept at snatching disaster from the jaws of victory too. Two common ailments of research projects can be: mission drift – when the objectives of the project change or broaden half way through, meaning the results are wonky or ineffective for the new objective; and the omnibus effect – the client lets slip that research is underfoot and other departments wade in with extraneous, and often, unrelated questions and objectives.

Both of which can have the effect of creating a camel: a horse made by committee. What was meant to be a tight, focused, timely research project can turn into a bumbling, unfocused and delayed act of compromise, where no one gets what they really want.

All of this is to say that traditional research is not always fit for purpose anymore.

A new pace of information

There remains, and likely will always remain, a need for gold-standard research – for example Government and legal research or market sizing projects – where the design, fieldwork and delivery is a slow act of methodical rigor. But those instances are fewer and further between.

Market research no longer has the monopoly on information. Client owned panels; SurveyMonkey; Facebook polls; passive data; app and loyalty metrics can all now be tapped into as well. And all of them can turn around information quicker than four weeks. This doesn’t mean that market research’s time is over, but it does mean it has to adjust to a new pace of information.

This familiarity and expectation of a faster pace of delivery is occurring everywhere. The ephemeralisation of the service industry in nearly all forms from food delivery and taxis to entertainment and grocery shopping has been rapid and near global. Most of us regularly use at least one of the following – Deliveroo, Uber Eats, foodpanda, Uber, Go-Jek, Grab, Netflix, On Demand TV, YouTube, Amazon, Lazada, RedMart – if not a handful.

The effect of this is dramatic, with recent research suggesting that after two seconds of buffering viewers will start to abandon online video content, and after 10 seconds half of all viewers will have disappeared. We have come to expect instant gratification.

A higher level of expectation

The important thing about all of the gig-economy brands listed above is that they are not only faster, they are also arguably better, than what’s gone before. Amazon has helped kill off the high-street because it is cheaper and has a broader stock of products; Uber has transformed private-hire transport because payment and ordering is easier than hailing or phoning a taxi; Deliveroo has conquered the takeaway market as they offer decent, quality, restaurant cuisine rather than the greasy takeaway options that went before.

It’s redundant not to believe that our experiences as consumers don’t bleed into our corporate and commercial lives; the impact of the gig-economy on us as consumers is affecting us in our jobs. So, not only does research have to adjust to a faster pace but also to new expectations of insight.

If a marketing manager can, at the tap of a button, see the views, clicks, likes and shares of a new ad campaign, as well as listen to the roar – or silence, depending upon it’s success – of social media comments; then why would they be willing to wait 4 weeks for a bar chart to tell them that their spontaneous awareness has gone up? Traditional research is in danger of being not only slower but also less insightful than other sources of information.

Liberation from the committee

In the face of these challenges, however, we must see the opportunity. Previously, when research was the only access to the voice of the consumer it was asked to do too much. The errors of mission-drift or the omnibus effect are the natural product of a company full of people wanting to hear what their consumers think.

The rise of alternative forms of information – thanks to, amongst others, passive data and social media metrics – means that many of the questions that formerly went to traditional research can be answered elsewhere. Leaving the door open for researchers to focus solely on the areas of information that other forms of data can’t touch – understanding the "why".

I recently went to receive a brief from a large telecoms company, as part of which they showed the real time tracking they could do of all of their consumer’s mobile devices in Singapore: a digital display of every handset moving about the country. This data provided rich insight for their marketing and product teams, and opened up a new source of revenue selling the data to third parties.

“What do you need me for, if you have all this?” I asked. "A lot of the time we don’t know why our consumers do what they do", was the reply. For all the data that the telco had, they couldn’t always make sense of it. This is an increasingly common question we are seeing from clients, especially those that are sitting on banks of big data – tell me the "why" behind all my numbers.

This then is the new opportunity of research; to explain and interpret what the client knows. This is a significant shift to appreciate: that clients are moving from, "I don’t know", on a broad scale, to the specific "I don’t know what my data means". The brief has become at once more focused and specific.

The world of just-in-time research

The focus of clients is moving to a demand for research to be an immediate source of insight, which can illuminate specific issues. Research becomes the clients’ spotlight, to be placed on specific issues when needed. Answers that arrive just in time to help interpret and contextualise big data.

However, with this comes a need for speed. Just in time doesn’t work if the delivery is still set to four weeks. We have to find ways to speed up the research process.

The rise of app-based research

One response to this demand for greater speed has been a turning to productised apps, through the likes of Zappi Store. Where, for a cut down price, you can buy access to a test of a concept, or a name, or an ad.

Similarly, there has been a rise in cookie cutter starts up that’s replicate the bigger agencies, but at a much faster and cheaper price. One example of this is Sensecheck, which offers on-demand advertising and sense-checking, that is such a carbon copy of Millward Brown’s more expensive and slower Link product as to be open to litigation.

The drawback of these approaches is that their speed causes a reductionist approach to insight, where meaning is boiled down to "key metrics" but without a greater understanding or interpretation of those scores in context. What’s missing is the deeper analysis and exploration of the "why" behind the results, all of which has been left behind for the sake of speed.

Similarly, the products are rigid, designed with efficiency in mind they have pre-determined sample sizes, questions and outputs, meaning any deviation from the product standard is costly and dramatically slower.

Turning to new technologies

The alternative to commoditised research products is to turn to new technologies to speed up the research process. At Kadence we are embracing new technologies that have brought both greater insight and greater speed to our projects.

One such technology is camera glasses – common reading glasses, with a Mission Impossible style camera embedded in the frame – another is Samsung 360 camera and VR headset.

Camera glasses to see as you see

Recently a Food & Drink client came to us with a need to understand the usability issues with a new hot drinks capsule machine they had created. In preliminary tests the machine was well received but in market the machine was underused and was an unprofitable placement for the client in hotels, restaurants and lounges.

This seemed the perfect project in which to use a new technology we’d invested in, camera glasses. Participants were asked to use the machine, whilst wearing the glasses, to capture precisely how they used the machine and film exactly what wearer was looking at. We then interviewed respondents about its ease of use, playing them back the results.

The technology allowed us to watch back, with the respondent, what they had seen and specifically where they were looking at the time.

It turned out the "on" button on the machine was confusing. It only took a few seconds to work out, but those few seconds of confusion was turning real consumers off the machine. By truly watching what the respondent saw we could get a detailed picture of their confusion. The glasses showed us in the moment details that may have been forgotten in a follow up interview, or may have been subjected to post-rationalisation.

Immediately the glasses provided a richer insight than in-depth interviews or observation alone. But what made the process even more successful is we had immediate evidence to show the client. There was no delay in interpreting or documenting the results – as there would have been without the glasses – we could instantaneously upload the video to the cloud for the client to watch and show their designers.

The result was a much faster and effective project, better able to inform the design of the machine by getting the specific evidence of "why" to the client.

360 camera and VR to put me right there

Another recent example of "just-in-time" research was for a large electronics company, who wanted to understand the dynamics of modern city living in Asia. The project would inform their design team who would be better able to create products for ever smaller, city center condos.

The key here was bringing the designers into the living rooms of the consumer across Asia. Traditional research would have involved weeks or months of ethnographies and home visits followed by further time dedicated to analysis and reporting before the designers got their hands on the findings.

Instead we opted to invest in Samsung 360 cameras. We sent researchers to each market simultaneously and had them set up the cameras in consumers’ homes, recording the entire spectrum of how they go about their daily lives, in conjunction with in-depth interviews afterwards.

We were then able to load the videos to the cloud, where the client could download them and view the videos though VR goggles, immersing themselves in the world of the consumer directly. The VR element giving a richer experience than photos or traditional video could have done. The designers could also immediately toggle between markets, as the videos were recorded simultaneously, and so jump between a Thai, and Malaysian and Vietnamese living room in a click. Combined with a Skype conference to provide context and further meaning from the in-depth interviews.

By providing just-in-time research our findings were able to inform upcoming design briefs, a feat never thought possible from traditional research. Rather they would likely be put on a shelf and left to gather dust as the results were too broad and too late to be of value.

The new technology of 360 cameras and VR goggles produced richer, faster insights than ever before. And allowed the design team much closer access to the consumer within days.

Greater speed and insight together

The benefit of these technologies is speed, we are able to bring results to the client much faster. The results arrive in time to be relevant to the client and to be seen in context of other data. So that the sum of their parts – research, social media metrics and passive data for example – come together as a whole.

But it’s benefit is not only speed, it also provides much richer insights. Being able to show footage from the respondent’s perspective puts the client in the consumers’ shoes; it’s harder to misinterpret or misconstrue the evidence, and achieves much stronger buy-in and acceptance of the results, as they can see it with their own eyes, as opposed to reading our interpretation off a PowerPoint slide.

In this way the technology is enhancing, not sacrificing, quality of insight. It’s an augmentation of the traditional research with new technology to bring greater understanding, impact and speed.

Kadence see these and other technologies as a way for market research to stand tall in the 21st Century and prove its value as the spotlight to illuminate the "why" for clients.

These technologies exist and we, as an industry, should be embracing them as a way to better engage our clients and our respondents.

The need for a change in dynamics

Embracing these technologies to achieve just-in-time research requires a shift in thinking. We’ve identified five areas that must be embraced if we’re to make the most of just-in-time research:

  • A move towards surgical precision research – just-in-time research is designed to answer targeted specific questions from the client. This can require getting comfortable with smaller, more targeted sample sizes or short, less broad discussion guides and questionnaires. The results are not designed to provide the whole picture – but illuminate one part.
  • Trust between the agency and partner – given this move towards precision, just-in-time research there has to be greater level of trust between agency and partner, a clear belief that the agency knows what they’re doing and the client understands what they’re getting.
  • Enhancing not replacing research – technologies like video glasses and 360 cameras are not aimed at replacing traditional research methods, but enhancing them. Better enabling them to meet the client’s expectations. The agency’s interpretation and analysis is still important and necessary admissible evidence.
  • A move from knowledge holder to knowledge sharer – the role of just-in-time research is to tessellate with other evidence to provide a clearer whole picture. Not to provide the picture on its own. As such there has to be a move from being the owner of all knowledge to a sharer of some knowledge with a greater pool of information.
  • A more agile set-up and sign off – one of the biggest drains on research speed is set-up and project sign-off. To capitalise on just-in-time research there is a need for quicker processing. Following the creative agency model, retainers can be an effective way of doing away with unnecessary red-tape and cutting to the quick of the research.

The future of research as a just-in-time partner

Today we are increasingly aware of brands that failed to embrace and foresee change – Nokia is the perhaps the most recent example. But others like Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster are also frozen statues to the dangers of stagnation.

Research is now, more than ever, trying to define its place in the world against a slew of new, agile and affordable competitors. We believe we can build a niche for ourselves as the just-in-time research partner through technology.

Not all clients will want this; not all agencies will embrace it; and not all projects will require it. But, in the face of a rapidly changing business landscape, the research industry needs to become more comfortable with trialing and adapting to new technologies and approaches as a way of staying relevant and timely with clients. At Kadence we believe this is through just-in-time research methods.

The writer is Patrick Young, insight director at Kadence International in Singapore.