For a creative person, research can be equally invigorating and frustrating.
Once, we would sit (relatively) powerless behind the glass as our target market merrily ripped our ideas to shreds. Or, rightly, praised them to the heavens. Or, worst of all, didn’t care either way.
Now we can watch from the comfort of home or office as the trial-by-focus-group unfolds.
And a trial it frequently is.
A clear winner? Or something everyone dislikes the least?
I’ve long-disliked traditional research for the same reasons that I’ve long-discouraged creative teams from relying solely on brainstorming to generate concepts.
Personalities, time constraints, lack of ownership and unnatural surroundings can encourage people to agree on something everyone just dislikes the least. Then they trot back to what they were doing before, pleased with a part well played and a deadline met.
Research needn’t be the preserve of the left brain
I understand why interviewees react the way they do in group research. Few people want to be the voice of dissent or look foolish for thinking differently.
Also, research tends to give the left brain, with all its conventions and rational expectations, a clear run-in on goal. This is odd, as it isn’t even this part of the brain that initially reacts to the finished product. But it helps explain why some good ideas bite the dust early.
The left brain, as we know, will over-rationalise information by deploying preconceptions and experiences which are familiar to it. So anything new risks being rejected.
However, there’s a lot that we (creative agencies, researchers and clients) can do to overcome this, and also to make research much more valuable.
Three steps to better research pay-back
Step 1: Give the right brain a voice in the room
The right side of the brain notices new stuff – such as fresh ideas and communications – then directs the narrow focus of the left brain toward it. So we must promote its involvement in research.
However, research environments tend to discourage ‘newness’. Their taupe walls and pastel prints create a palpable sense of sterility and falseness.
So why not research in different places? Perhaps somewhere that’s relevant to the topic being researched. Or at least create a more motivating and visual environment.
Get people out of their seats. Ask them to physically move between ideas they, personally, align to – not which ones they’re guessing they ought to like – discussing them as they go.
Finally, maximise this valuable time. Pick interviewees’ brains. Explore their hopes, fears and proclivities. Ask their thoughts. Suggest propositions. Talk to them about conceptual territories.
All of this will bring the empathetic, more understanding, right brain into play.
Step 2: Don’t expect people to be superheroes
I once attended research for a healthcare campaign where doctors were asked a Columbo-esque one last question: “if you could change the headline, what would you have it say?”. My mouthful of Earl Grey nearly shot out of my ears.
It’s like asking me how I would remove an appendix. Sure, I could have a look on YouTube before sharpening the scalpel but I’m certain it wouldn’t end well. The same applies to doctors and headlines.
It’s one thing to take people out of their comfort zones; it’s quite another to waste clients’ budget by asking them to perform a task they’re ill-equipped for.
Step 3: Bring research up in the mix
Let’s stop conducting creative research after the world and its dog has input their inputs and moved the logo a millimetre.
Get people in early. Mine their minds for thoughts. Suggest routes. People are happy to share insights if they believe we’re interested in what they think. As humans we’re all programmed to respond in kind to perceived empathy and understanding.
You’ll find it pays dividends in terms of the ideas we eventually create and the tactics which spin out of them. These can then go back into research for the right reasons – validation.
Oh, and make sure there are plenty biscuits for the creative teams. And a darkened room to lie down in afterwards just in case.
Patrick Norrie heads up Creative Direction at wethepeople. He started out as a copywriter, and has lead the creative line at leading agencies on a host of well-known brands.