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Greater Insight: Wendy Gordon, Acacia Avenue - Asking the right question

When it comes to qualitative research, asking 'why' may be the obvious route, but doesn't always lead to the best insight. Behavioural economics provides a way of achieving better results.

Qualitative research is frequently defined relatively to quantitative research - it answers the question 'why' rather than the question 'how many'.

Users and practitioners pride themselves on the power of qualitative methods to provide 'deep' or 'penetrating' insights into human behaviour that will lead to a desired and actionable outcome.

The big 'why' question is a legitimate one to ask of qualitative research, from a client perspective. Why is our brand struggling? Why don't current customers wish to increase their portfolio with us? Why are people not signing up to our new mobile package when it is better than our key competitors'?

The biggest error we make is to turn the big 'why' question into an endless stream of little 'why' questions that we ask directly of research participants. Each time a seemingly relevant attitude, opinion or behaviour is observed, the researcher asks little 'why' questions. Why, why, why?

Little 'whys' are often a waste of time because human beings do not know and/or cannot access the reasons why they behave the way they do. Furthermore, their attitudes often bear little correlation to behaviour. People are poor witnesses to their own deeper motivations and are simply unaware of some of the factors that influence their decisions and choices at the point when behaviour takes place.

So does this mean we can never ask the question 'why?' Of course not. But we need a model of thinking to help us.

Behavioural economics (BE) is an economic theory of behaviour that has migrated from the ivory towers of academia into the mainstream through books such as Nudge, Predictably Irrational and Blink. From there, it has been taken up with enthusiasm by the world of advertising/communications, as well as taken into the heart of government initiatives dealing with behaviour change. It focuses on what people are doing now rather than what they claim to have done in the past or say they will do in the future.

In contrast to classical economic theory, BE holds that human beings are born and develop hard-wired cognitive, emotional and social biases and distortions. People do not consider all possible options; they do not deliberate and consciously weigh up all the possible alternatives, costs and benefits when it comes to judgement and choice behaviour. Instead, they make fast, effective and efficient decisions, comparatively rather than absolutely, from what is mentally available at the time, rather than a census of all options, in ways that demand least effort and, often, intuitively (good or bad).

The way to understand the big 'why' is to ask questions that throw light on relevant behavioural contexts and/or behaviour-related hypotheses. The most useful contextual questions are not 'why' questions but what? How? Who? Who else? When? Where? How often?, and so on.

Enhancing research

BE is not a mandate to throw out the best techniques and methods that contemporary or 'best practice' qualitative research has in its armoury. Using different observation and immersion approaches with indirect ways of revealing answers plays to the strengths of qualitative research.

What BE challenges, and rightly so, is automatic and rote qualitative research - the kind that takes what people say about their behaviour as 'the truth', using focus groups to provide evidence of an a priori point of view.

The lens of BE creates the opportunity to design innovative ways to change behaviour - going with the flow of human judgement and choice, rather than against it.

BE is a big challenge to research in terms of scoping projects, hypothesis generation, experimental methods, sample design, interpretation and recommendations.

A few of us are making headway with great results for curious and brave clients.

Wendy Gordon is a partner at Acacia Avenue. For further information, visit: http://www.acacia-avenue.com/video.php.

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