FEATURE4 August 2011

Behind the sofa

Features Technology

Simon Lidington thinks researchers have forgotten the art of conversation. Turns out all you need is a sofa, a video camera and some cool interactive transcript technology to get people talking.


The whole research process is geared around responding to the concerns of clients, says Lidington, a former UK CEO of Research International who now runs Insight Exchange. “It’s not about what’s really on people’s minds,” he says. “Consumers are people and they have lives, and something that might be of immense importance to a company might only be of little importance to them.”

Three years ago, Lidington set about trying to remedy this situation with a fairly low-tech solution: a sofa, an inflatable one that could be deployed in shopping centres, high streets and other public spaces, where people could be enticed with a cup of tea and a muffin to give up 15 minutes of their time to be filmed chatting about three subjects that were of interest to them, chosen from a selection of topic cards. The sofa is a physical thing, Lidington says, but also “a metaphor for having a conversation, a place where people can feel relaxed, open and are not being grilled for information”.

“The sofa is a metaphor for having a conversation, a place where people can feel relaxed, open and are not being grilled for information”

The approach was a response to disaffection with traditional research and influenced by Studs Turkel, the American author who dedicated much of his life to chronicling the common lives of his countrymen. Lidington says he was keen on pursuing “a more generative” form of research, doing away with hypothesis and validation to instead take a more inductive approach “where you don’t quite know what you are looking for at the outset”.

But wading through hours of video in the hope of finding something interesting is unlikely to win over many converts in business. So, working with his daughter Rosie, Lidington set about building a platform that would make those videos searchable and – most importantly – usable.

High-tech meets low-tech
The Big Sofa web app launched this week and features an impressive interactive transcript function that links the written words to the actual point in the video where they are spoken.

The transcripts are searchable, so at Research’s request we looked for all mentions of the retailer Tesco. Among 100 hours of video we find 53 mentions of the brand. In the search results screen you can hover the cursor over a video thumbnail for a pop-up that shows a snippet of the keyword in the context it was spoken so the user can take a call on whether the video is of interest. From the same screen you can also refine the search by demographics, location, brand use and an assortment of lifestyle factors.

Users can also search and refine using tags assigned to videos. Lidington and The Big Sofa team are currently tagging clips based on their emotional content, so a bank for example would be able to search for ‘credit card’ and ‘frustration’ to see what irks customers most.

Clicking through to a video takes you straight to the point where the search term is first used. From there, users can highlight key phrases and create clips to add to their own video playlists to share with colleagues or to include in presentations (as shown above). This particular element draws heavily on popular music apps like iTunes and Spotify and ultimately Lidington hopes to have a community of users sharing playlists of videos built around brands, themes and topics.

The Big Sofa team will be putting together their own playlists for subscribers as well as digests and editorials, the former providing broad overviews of topic areas with the latter delivering a firm opinion on a given subject – both supported by video content.

Access to the platform can be bought on a per-day basis or on subscription. The Post Office – The Big Sofa’s first client – has signed up for six months. Lidington has committed to delivering 1,000 hours of video content a year, added at a rate of 200 conversations a month from September but increasing to 400 per month in January.

Topic areas might be fairly broad, but Lidington reckons there’s plenty of depth there for clients to drill down into. Nor will they be locked into using just Big Sofa-produced content. Subscribers will be able to upload their own videos of depth interviews and focus groups – each getting the interactive transcript treatment from The Big Sofa partner 3Play Media. These videos will be held privately, separate from the main body of video content but will still be searchable by the client.

Lidington says there is also scope for companies to commission their own bespoke videos, setting up sofas in Post Office branches, say, to collect more brand specific information. He’s also talking of someday inviting experts, opinion formers and celebrities on to the sofa; of running videos through facial expression analysis software (though this is “not at the forefront of our R&D efforts”); and of rolling out iPhone, iPad and SmartTV versions of The Big Sofa app.

But first things first: they’re looking to buy more sofas. The two they’ve currently got are unlikely to be enough to meet their ambitions. Better stock up on tea and muffins too.

Check out screenshots of The Big Sofa web app under the ‘related files’ tab. The company is online here