Innovation unConference, MassTLC, unCon, unConference

unCon 2013 Session: Generative Research: Small Data and Human Scale Insights

Jason Roberston, Senior Strategist, Continuum
I just spent a two days at a conference
in which the concept of Big Data and how to get the most out of it was
discussed rather thoroughly.  So, it was interesting to hear a pitch for a
MassTLC Innovation unConference
session on “small data” or
human-scale research.
Generative research implies using research to
generate ideas. The small data, or human scale, terminology indicates a method
that requires close observation and deep analysis of a limited number of human
subjects.  Where big data is great for seeing trends and both historical
and predicative analysis, small data focuses at getting at the “why” behind
individual choices and understanding the human context and emotional backdrop
that informs those choices.  Generative research delivers:
  • Nuance
    • Why (not just
    • Contradictions
      and unspoken needs
  • C.D.E
    • Context (human
      level context)
    • Depth of
    • Emotion
  • Flexibility
    • Every problem
      is different
    • You can change
      your method on the fly based on any number of inputs
Through close observation of the daily
reality of a target audience, companies and organization can develop use cases
that are reflective of an actual reality, not a marketing department’s educated
guesses.  Several examples were cited of inaccurate assumptions made by an
organization about its target audience that were only uncovered through
human-scale research. Among these was the example of a juice manufacturer that
was targeting Mexican families.  The product (a juice powder that needs to
be mixed) was designed to appeal to children under the guidance of a
parent.  Ideally the juice would be mixed in the kitchen of the family
home.  However, close observation revealed that typical Mexican kitchens
are the exclusive domain of the mother – children are rarely allowed in – which
meant a fundamental disconnect in the positioning of the product that would
have gone unseen without human-scale research.
One of the more interesting elements of the
session was a group conversation around how to eliminate personal bias when
questioning or observing a research subject. Some hints included:
  • Write all your
    opinions and bias out on paper or white board in advance. This often has
    the effect of defusing a simmering bias
  • Work with a team
    on research methodology extensively first, before going into the
    field.  Acknowledge the bias and solve for it.
  • Let the subject
    lead the research – open ended questions are perfect here.  Follow
    the subjects lead through her answers.
  • Be mindful of
    your personal presentation: If you’re interviewing people in lower
    socio-economic strata wearing a fancy watch and reading your questions off
    of the latest iPad may be a bad idea. Similarly, if your interview subject
    is a Wall Street titan, dress and act in a way that meets your subject on
    her or his own terms.
Human scale research enables a new
perspective on data that:
  • Makes strategy
  • Makes companies
  • Informs better,
    more focused human-oriented product design
  • Allows companies
    to care about their audiences as people, not data points
  • Helps identify
    real world problems
Ultimately, small data should be used in
conjunction with big data methods. It is not a substitute or in opposition to
any of the large-scale research and analysis tools.  These methods support
each other and, taken together, give any organization the best chance a truly
understanding its market and audience.
Christopher M. Nahil
Message & Medium – Marketing and Communications

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