Tom Ewing and his band of Research Outlaws challenged themselves, and MRS Conference delegates, to imagine a world where asking questions of people is banned. It is, admitted Ewing, a bit of a fanciful notion. Surveys are fairly harmless, after all – although Ewing suggested that there might come a time where they get so long and tedious people “might start dying of boredom”.
But jokes aside, he said there are intellectual challenges to the validity of asking direct questions of people, who are routinely shown to be poor witnesses and predictors of their own attitudes and behaviours. ‘Ask a silly question and you’ll get a silly answer’ – or so the old saying goes. But perhaps all questions have an element of silliness to them…
This survey-less future scenario served as the setup for an Apprentice-like session, where a Unilever director of household care products, Arindam Som, challenged the Outlaws to answer two briefs: How to make cleaning an enjoyable and engaging experience, and to find out why UK consumers are more paranoid about germs than their European counterparts. Each Outlaw went away and came back with their own solutions to the problems.
Siamack Salari, the founder of EthOS, pitched a mobile app that allows consumers to document their lives on video for analysis by researchers. His key insights: consumers use distraction strategies to make cleaning enjoyable but engagement comes from seeing the difference cleaning makes.
David Bausola of Philter Phactory presented his Weavr technology - best known for powering BrainJuicer’s ‘research robots’, the DigiViduals. He rejected the term ‘bot’, describing them instead as fuzzy logic systems that blog themselves into existence using a demographic and personality profile to find web content created by ‘people’ like them. His key insight: why do companies care what consumers think, Weavrs could be installed in appliances like washing machines, allowing the machine to tell you what soap powder it needs to clean your clothes the way you like. Scary stuff.
Next was Steve Phillips of Spring Research, who used behavioural economics experimentation to determine that ‘mastery’ of the cleaning task makes for higher engagement and enjoyment levels, while semiotician Greg Rowland explored history and national identity to explain why the English are paranoid about germs.
“In England,” he said, “we don’t like ourselves, we don’t like each other and we don’t like our bodies.” Current advertising for cleaning products feeds germ phobia, Rowland says. The Englishmen is looking for a product that says, “Good enough is good enough, you have cleaned enough already”.
The Outlaws provided plenty of scintillating stuff, proving that a future without surveys is certainly survivable – although it might not be entirely desirable for some. “That was great,” remarked one delegate to another at the end of the session. “I agree,” his friend replied. “I wouldn’t buy any of it, though.”