Monday, February 20, 2006

Executive Challenges: Between Sight and Insight

To help illustrate the importance for business practice of mastering a relationship between observation and anaylsis, it might be helpful to see how it plays out for executives.

Business Ethnography as a Case in Point

The following article was the result of a discussion with an advertising executive who had strong objections to the way in which professionals conduct research and present results in her field. We worked together to articulate the commons issues among her specific field and effective thinking across contexts.

Sight Before Insight

For good and ill, business ethnography has come to represent the broadest category of research on film. Technological improvements in cameras have made data collection easy and inexpensive, and clients can find out first-hand almost an unlimited number of details of consumer behavior.

How much more reliable is observation than the results of a questionnaire? Rather than speculating about what a subject would do from the distance of a focus group, a person can show you, up close and personal, in the more applicable setting of her own home. You’ve seen this sort of research at presentations – agencies can collect an unlimited and disparate variety of data and create a link with the client’s product.

The question is: even though data has been captured on film, how do you know what it means?

The ease of contemporary filming may have made us excellent reporters but has not inherently improved our ability to analyse. The question here is the same as with all technology – how can we use what we know to improve our understanding?

Case Study: Casual Eating

The challenges to the advertising industry are apparent in a film recently shown at a conference for an international foods client.

The film consisted of a series of clips, each presenting a subject discussing with an interviewer reactions to food being eaten as the conversation took place. The format was question and answer and focused both on expectations and the actual eating experience at hand. Subjects were presented in mid-shot with suggestions of their environment behind them – the edge of a kitchen cabinet, a bedroom window curtain, the corner of a rug. However, the frame was otherwise entirely filled with the subject’s face.

Because the reporting was done on film, the result was more far more entertaining and engaging than it would have been on paper. Subjects’ opinions were clearly presented, and the tape offered a variety of responses to the food that seemed to represent a wide range both of opinion and impression – in other words, some liked the flavor, some were more interested in texture, some were more interested in the way it made them feel, and so on.

The presenter concluded with a summary of the results already seen, a mention of the target audience, and an announcement of her key insight.

There were two problems here. The first is that the summary and the key insight were the same. The second is that nobody seemed to notice.

This is not unusual. The immediacy of an film audience’s experience and the presumed transparency between the medium and the detail it captures can make us forgetful of the necessity to reflect. However, we need to remember that the act of seeing (observation) is not the same as the tool of insight (meaning).

And because we all agree that even the most meticulous observation can not replace analysis, here are some questions to consider when determining whether your video presents enough information on which to inform strategy:

How many people from different contexts can be made a part of the editing process?

Can you include someone with entirely fresh eyes? A planner? A client? Can you put them in the same room? An industry expert?

Can you generate analysis in stages – during the pre-production, filming, and post-production?
What is the difference between action and motivation?

How will you determine why a subject does what they do other than by what she says?

How much time is spent observing and how much interacting in the film? What does a subject tell you, what does the environment tell you, and do they agree?

What evidence can you find of motivation in a subject’s home environment?

What clues either corroborate or contradict what the subject says? Will the subject acknowledge inconsistencies? Why or why not? How do you know?

This is not to say that ethnography is the only effective use of video research. After all, observation and interrogation are necessary for any research --you can’t get the insight you’re after without accurate data. Ethnography comes in when we need to draw conclusions form that data.

The most important thing is not to mistake one for the other.

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