In pursuit of an honest consumer truth

UNSW Home Mods Robin&Paul Grabrail StepUps2.jpg

'The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts' - John Locke

Discovering people’s truth in the complex consumer process is no easy task. Much of what people do is habitual and unconscious, so just relying on what consumers report, limits the possibilities. The 17th Century English philosopher John Locke advises us to pay less attention to what people say, and more attention to what they do. Their actions will show us the truth.

As cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade said: “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

Given that much market research practice relies on reported behaviour, researchers often miss important evidence. To fully explore the research question, to complete the picture of consumer experience we must look to deeper fundamental drivers hidden in consumer behaviour, by observing what they do as well as what they say, and contrasting it with what they say they do.

The tricky thing is that for the most part consumers try to report their behaviour honestly. So how do we tackle the problem of finding an honest consumer truth when we are limited by the fact that people can only speak from what lies within their sphere of experience? How do we explore the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’; the stuff people don’t know is going on; within themselves, and in the world.

Ethnographic research techniques go beyond reported behaviour to engage participants in a way that enables exploration of the ‘unknown’ and find a more honest view of consumer experience so that we may design communications, products and services of relevance.

Partnering ethnographic observation with in-depth interviews can help the researcher construct a fully contextualised framework to view the research problem, and using visual methodologies often reveals surprising outcomes...I’d go as far as to say that visual ethnography will reveal human needs whether you like it or not.

When the University of New South Wales Faculty of Built Environment commissioned a small video ethnographic component to a large mutli-methodology project on the information needs of Do-It-Yourself Home Modifications for Disability, some surprising findings emerged beyond the original research scope. The video ethnography was intended to augment the large quant part of the study and create empathy beyond the on-campus face-to-face interviews. The video material was to provide intimate, day-in-the-life portraits of a range of users. Short quotes and grabs on video were to be used in a forum-style, on-line information service. But in the end the ethnography also revealed some unexpected behaviour and attitudes around the practical use of the Home Mod components.

To begin with, in-home, in-depth interviews were conducted to get the full report of people’s product use and a story of their lives and their disabilities. Then a range of visual ethnography techniques were used.

Home-tours were filmed to see how people used and moved in their private space, how they related to their house-mates and carers, and how the products fitted into their space and their lives. Then participants were filmed both using and demonstrating their use of products.

What was surprising was that while participants said one thing, in many instances their behaviour revealed a completely different truth. One participant, very happy with her new hand held shower, reported it to be easy to use: “I don’t have any trouble with it”. Yet in action struggled to replace the hand-set on the cradle, fumbling with one hand then both hands (when really she should have been steadying herself with the grab- rail that she’d also installed).

If we were to rely on her reports alone we would only know that she seemed happy with her purchase. Her journey from need, through the process of making her choice, followed by making her purchase in-store and then installation, have her not just physically, but emotionally committed to the final outcome. But perhaps there is more than post-purchase rationalisation going on here. Perhaps she is blind to the fact that it could be easier to use, unaware of an alternate ‘world view’. Or perhaps habitual use has accustomed her to adapting to the shortfalls of the product so that she no longer perceives them.

From the participant’s standpoint, it’s not a matter of wilful falsehood, but more a case of ignorant bliss; she forms her opinions based on what is within her sphere of experience. To create the best products and services, designers need to look beyond reported attitudes, to visual methodologies that will reveal a picture closer to consumer truth. Visual ethnography can highlight the biases we all have about our own behaviour and provide a source of discussion and a means for unpacking consumer behaviour.

The Transport Accident Commission of Victoria commissioned a large ethnographic study to understand risk-taking behaviour amongst young drivers. Over and above in-depth in-home interviews, time was spent in cars with participants, as well as at home with their friends and family doing everyday activities. A picture emerged of the young participants’ attitudes, as well as what they get up to, and specifically what they get up to in cars. In the latter part of the field work participants were also asked to use their own smart phones to film themselves on normal everyday driving trips. Using cameras in this participatory way established a collaborative relationship and once again the observed behaviour revealed surprising truths, in this instance as much to the participant as to the researcher. Using this reflexive visual methodology meant participants were able to look at their own behaviour. One participant, aware that she was ‘not the best driver on the road’, and in the habit of using her phone while driving ‘but only when I know its safe’, after seeing herself on video was shocked by how long her eyes left the road and turned to her phone. In this way she was able to ‘own’ her behaviour and see it with new eyes.

This kind of collaborative approach allows the researcher to maintain a neutral position, safeguarding against being perceived as judgmental. On this project it meant we could explore together the attitudinal mismatch between perceived risks and actual risk. Once again, it wasn’t a case of wilful deception on the participant’s part, her belief about herself was that she was driving relatively safely. The visual ethnographic methods facilitated a view from outside her personal bias, and she decided her risk behaviour didn’t match the idea of who she was. She was able to question her self-perception and developed awareness of other possibilities to be explored together with the researcher. This participatory ethnographic approach facilitates needs- based thinking at the research level and creates a path for innovation at the design level.

Visual ethnographic methodologies are becoming increasingly popular in commercial and academic research projects. This is a good thing; they are invaluable because they help create empathy and a rich picture of the consumer world. But it is a mistake to let the role of visual ethnography end there. Visual ethnography is not just about pretty pictures, its real power is in its ability to reveal a consumer truth beyond what the participant can themselves articulate. Visual ethnography can help us understand what people do as well as what they say, to explore the ways consumer behaviour is at odds with what they say, and to explore regions of consumer need that are beyond their experience. We can use it to look at the deeper fundamental drivers hidden in consumer behaviour, to complete the picture of consumer needs, and to implement sound, needs-based design. In a world awash with product choices this feels like the only sensible reason to create more.