FEATURE16 April 2012

Elephant? What elephant?

Context is the elephant in the room for research, say Tom Holliss and John Griffiths of Spring Research. It’s time to open your eyes.


There is an elephant in the room. We try to ignore it. We walk around carefully so as not to disturb it. And until now we haven’t talked about it. That elephant is context.

When did you last discuss whether the research environment had any bearing on the answers your respondents gave you? What if research is creating its own context? The conventional response is that it doesn’t matter, that content is everything, that the researcher’s task is to extract information regardless of where respondents are. Anyway, context is too tricky to factor in, and it would make research more complicated and expensive.

But emerging methodologies enable us to take context into account and see how it influences respondents. Brands that understand how to exploit context will, we believe, have a strategic advantage.

“Emerging methodologies enable us to take context into account and see how it influences respondents. Brands that understand how to exploit context will have a strategic advantage”

It is not groundbreaking to suggest that all our mundane decisions are made within a specific set of contextual factors: I speak quietly because I am in the library, I speak loudly in a meeting because I want my point to be heard, and (importantly for consumer research) I buy a soft drink not just because I am thirsty but because I happen to be passing the shop where I know it is on offer and where there is an attractive woman behind the counter. All our decisions, including those made as consumers, are coloured by the contextual nature of social existence. The social psychologist Erving Goffman discussed this topic, using the word dramaturgy to describe the different ‘scripts’ we use depending on the setting we find ourselves in. The philosopher Jesse Prinz, has argued that we never experience emotion on a purely internal level – we experience it in relation to people or things.

If we accept these ideas then we can only understand emotion and identity in context. We don’t know how someone feels until we know how it affects their lives. We also know that memory is fallible and often inconsistent with fact – an issue that established methodologies have often failed to address.

Eyes closed

Let’s look at the mainstream research methods that ignore context.

1. Street, telephone and online surveys

Surveys are a mature methodology for measuring attitudes and claimed behaviour, but by their very nature they are normative. Quite apart from reaching people ‘out of the moment’, surveys are rigid constructions of the researcher’s own design. They do not allow respondents the freedom to articulate their experiences as they would naturally. Even open-ended responses are limited because they generally elicit less extensive or engaged responses. Online surveys can address context if the research focus is itself online, but in most respects they are as blind to it as their offline forebears.

2. Hall tests and Link tests

The hall test and the Link test are mainstays of product development and communications tracking. Hall tests attempt to echo the experience of purchase, but they are often so contrived as to be self-defeating. Respondents are removed from their actual experience of purchase and consumption and then we overlay research apparatus that is completely divorced from the way people watch and rate advertising in reality.

3. Focus groups

Focus groups are valuable and will likely remain a key part of the researchers’ repertoire for years to come. But in their design, they consistently fail to account for context. We invite people to sit with complete strangers, at unsociable times in the evening, in rooms equipped with one-way mirrors and CCTV cameras. In this environment we click our fingers and expect them to be in the moment – even though the environment is far removed from where people buy and consume. Take breakfast cereals – why gather people at 9 o’clock in the evening in a viewing facility, round a coffee table or in a ‘boardroom’, surround them with strangers and ask them to recreate breakfast time? Of course respondents are capable of remembering how they eat breakfast (research wouldn’t work at all if they didn’t) but it raises the question of how much more insightful researchers could be if they could actually get to them at breakfast time.

4. Neuromarketing

Arguably, the emergence of neuromarketing signals the arrival of methodologies that are even more polarised against understanding context. Researchers connect a participant to an fMRI scanner or other measurement device, usually in a clinical location, and compare the electronic activity of the brain with the participants’ own explanation of their thoughts and feelings. This may elicit interesting, manageable data on how people react to certain stimuli, but it pays scant attention to the lived experience of the stimulus. The most under-read sociology undergraduate can wax lyrical about the Hawthorne effect (the danger of laboratory settings altering people’s behaviour and reactions) but market research seems to have ignored or simply skimmed over these concerns.

Eyes open

So what can we do to pick up context? New technologies and ways of thinking allow us to be creative in addressing the weaknesses of conventional methodologies.

1. Ethnography and observation

Can we really claim that ethnography is a new way of understanding context? After all, it has been a constant in academic research since it was pioneered in the early 1900s. In its essence ethnography is about delving deeply into people’s lives and understanding the minutiae of their cultural and social experiences. Or perhaps more pertinently, understanding the contextual webs within which people exist.

But market research has substituted ethnographic techniques for ethnography itself. Though some claim it in their repertoire, in reality this has usually amounted to extended depth interviews, walks round the home or using a camcorder – a far cry from the immersive experience that characterises ethnography in its true form. The reasons for this are clear: ethnography is often simply not commercially viable. It is extremely rare for a researcher to be given the freedom of several weeks (or months) to immerse themselves in the lives of their respondents.

2. Auto-ethnography

There is another way. New thinking has allowed us to bridge the gap between ethnographic thought and market research, with an approach that is equally sensitive to context yet retains commercial viability. Auto-ethnography is a method of getting respondents to become ethnographic researchers themselves, and report back on the worlds of people around them. Instead of imposing ourselves on people, with little contextual understanding of their lives and experiences, consumers’ stories are obtained from the very people who know them best: their friends, family and loved ones. These people understand the contextual scripts that participants carry with them, and intimately understand the social environments in which their decisions are made.

Mark Earls has written extensively about the way humans behave by copying each other. For him, continually trialling new behaviours through imitation is the most efficient and prevalent form of learning. Therefore we can suggest that typically people are well-equipped – skilled, even – in the observation of people around them. With this in mind, there is a clear benefit in asking respondents to comment on and interpret the behaviours of others in context. Not only does auto-ethnography enlist an army of researchers, it allows for contextual insights well beyond what we could hope to pick up with our traditional methodologies.

Another innovation into the world of observation is BrainJuicer’s experiment with what they call the Talking Home. It brings together 24-hour observation using webcams with the tracking of energy usage and how digital devices are being used on a wi-fi network. The researchers are also using smartphones and sleep-monitoring wristbands to track movement. What makes the Talking Home so interesting is that BrainJuicer is primarily a quantitative agency, and is looking to apply scale to this mass collection of data. Ethnography? Perhaps not. But certainly an innovative way to observe behaviour and understand context.

3. ‘In the moment’ mobile research

There are two core elements to understanding context: researching people in the moment of experience, and understanding the environment, both social and physical, in which decisions are made. New mobile technologies are making it possible to address these issues head-on. Our company, Spring Research, recently launched a mobile research methodology that uses a smartphone app and a texting facility to allow respondents to report on their experiences as and when they occur. Whether it is snacking, accessing media, or thinking about buying a car, the mobile phone allows us to collect information in the moment and, using a series of core questions, triangulates temporal, social, emotional and environmental context, rather than moving respondents into a research context. Though self-reported emotion capture has its problems, it is still a step forward in picking up on emotional cues.

4. Cultural and social theory

Researchers focused on culture have been working on commercial projects for many years now. Their thinking has been applied to a variety of issues from product design to software integration, as well as human rituals at home and in the workplace. Writing for the AQR, Simon Blyth and Simon Roberts have made a plea for the restoration of what they call ‘thingness’ to market research. They view many experiences as being mediated by the things around us – we attach meanings to the tangible items we own, of which brand identity is only one aspect. Examining the impact of objects
and technologies on human beings puts these things at the centre of
our thoughts and provides an alternative to research that focuses on the consumer. It opens a new way of thinking about the context of our lives in relation to the objects that surround us. Cultural researchers and semioticians are giving us a different take on consumer behaviour – changing the way we think about the people we research and the contexts in which they live.

Hello, elephant

With new methodologies and technologies for addressing context emerging all the time, there is a risk of research retreating behind a wall of automated devices and data-collection methods. In years past far more time was spent collecting data than thinking about what the data actually means. For research to be effective there will need to be a shift away from fieldwork and towards thinking and analysis. We have never had a better opportunity to get closer to the lives of our customers and understand the context they inhabit.

John Griffiths is creative director and Tom Holliss is research executive at Spring Research


11 years ago

Excellent article. What strikes me as particularly telling about all the 'eyes closed' methodologies and approaches is how entrenched they are in some organisations - both agency and client side. I don't deny they have their role as our industry bread and butter, but progressing with more natural, context accurate means of understanding humans - listening to them, interacting and exchanging dialogue, in their surrounds and in a non-disruptive way, is how MR will move forward if it is to remain relevant and engaging. At MESH, we're a big advocate of 'in-the-moment' research. Tapping into the event and consumer experience as it happens reveals so much more than retrospective methods. Society is becoming real-time in it's use of technology and social media especially, so we need to follow suit and embrace this.

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11 years ago

Excellent reading and very well written. As a researcher I can't agree more with the Elephant. Why are researcher brining 5th grade boys into a sterile focus group room with a two-way mirror with a rented laptop on the 28th floor of downtown hire rise to test a video game? Why do some believe that two researchers and a camera persons on one respondent in their home are not intimidating? Not to mention the fact that they have told the respondent they are going to be taking pictures of their cabinets which are now completely organized and you can spot a sugar granule on their counter from the front door and the house is a mess? Or perhaps one of my personal favorites...the sterile White box with the granola sample..."Slide your box open and try product 956" sounds over the speaker. Did I have an accident? Am I in an operating room, am I going to make it? I love granola, maybe this is heaven? Is any method really prefect and “true?” Probably not, but we can be more innovative to get as in-context as possible in order to glean the best research to make sound business decisions. If you want to hear about a company that has taken a 6,000 sq. ft. home and converted into a "Reality House" for research and specializes with in-context research from the facility side, let me know. These people do some really interesting things. They will bring dogs in to dirty the floors if a client is testing floor cleaning and they do taste tests with actual dogs. They even have a swimming pool for testing those “swimmer diapers” too. The place has everything…it’s like an in-context research resort. Again, great read and today’s a great day as I learned a few new things! Thanks for sharing.

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11 years ago

Hi Christine, thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed the article. I am very interested in the 'Reality house' you mention - could you give me any more details? Tom

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