The Association for Qualitative Research
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Riding the winds of change

We shouldn't fear technological innovation in the insight business, but we are right to be sceptical. No algorithm can yet interpret the twitch of an eyebrow.

A millennial in the insight business, it’s taken a while to realise what exciting times we live and work in. I’m a luddite by my generation’s standards, who does not tweet and eschews Instagram, but the importance of technology in market research has been driven home at recent industry conferences.

Dubious claims

The eminent Didier Truchot of Ipsos remarked at the IIEX conference earlier this year that market research has seen more change in the last five years than in the previous fifty. The growth of online has led to tech providers, software programmers and digital craftspeople flocking to the insight industry to set up shop, some with dubious claims of tech-enabled insight and epiphanies.

As these tech providers move in, it’s easy to become daunted by the looming spectre of automation. Worldwide, from shipping to farming, automation is replacing human labour. Labourers are understandably twitchy, a theme brilliantly played out in Sky’s legal/financial drama Billions.

Anticipating the arrival of a quant algorithm on the trading floor, younger traders voice fears that they will eventually be replaced by a quicker mechanical mind. One senior trader, however, is unconcerned: “No computer can get the info I can and know what to do with it that I do!”

Our fictional hero is right. Critically, we should neither expect nor anticipate that computers will offer greater insight than the human mind. After all, as Robin Horsfield, MD of Trinity McQueen, remarked to me, insight is entirely man-made. Our ability to manipulate, layer and question data are faculties beyond the tech platforms held up to us as dynamic, reactive technologies.

As researchers, we have the unique and invaluable ability to adapt beyond a set programme. How many times have you switched up your face-to-face research based on a powerful response or signal? This is one of the great advantages that living, breathing researchers hold, and an endemic problem in the tech industry.

Take YouTube’s video suggestion chain. How often have you found yourself on the weird side of YouTube and asked yourself “how did I get here”? From first video to last, YouTube’s algorithm has been making decisions, based around a core metric designed to capture your attention.

These algorithms are quant based, a trained muscle to react on the basis of numbers. Crucially, these numeric rules cannot account for the many dimensions of human experience and interaction, and in many ways, the pathway of videos you follow are a guess, a prediction, of what might keep you watching that runs on rails but cannot adapt.

We should, of course, acknowledge what the platform is trying to achieve in capturing your attention by often showing stranger and more tangential content to keep you entertained. But the pathway is limited, tailored entirely to a core metric to keep those eyes on the screen. As researchers, our identification of journeys is far more nuanced and dynamic.

This simplicity, and the adaptable nature of technological tools, are a constant blight on the ability to innovate. In conversation with a software developer at the BBC, it was put to me that despite a veneer of constant progress and pushing-of-envelopes, the multi-functionality of code, the building blocks of tech innovation, is a serious inhibitor for progress in the tech sector. “Developers are lazy,” I was told. “If, when we build something, we can use old code, we will.”

A very human problem

This is an important point, as it’s not just developers who take the odd subconscious shortcut: thinking we are building something new by repurposing an old tool. This is a very human problem, impeccably observed and beautifully explained by Abraham Maslow: “when all you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In essence, the tech tools of market research have an uncanny tendency to narrow our ability to adapt, innovate, and discover fresh insight.

In sum, my fellow quallies, our days are not numbered for our insight remains as valuable as ever. We’ve experienced wave on wave of tech innovation since the 70s when the first researcher to conduct a tele-depth interview (TDI) tentatively picked up the phone. The internet was a game changer for the way we went about our business and shows us how we work hand in hand with technological innovation.

Today, we can recruit respondents with targeted social media campaigns effectively and efficiently. We can send research assignments to our respondents instantaneously and receive data at the click of a button, evidenced by the great success of online communities. We can word search, build themes and access data more quickly and effectively than ever before, and herein lies our relationship with technology in this sector; it must serve us as researchers.

Valuable conduits

Promises of automated focus group moderators are already echoing round conference halls, but we should be safe in the knowledge that today, we are still the most valuable conduit for extracting data. Until a developer can programme a metric to understand the twitch of an eyebrow in an interview or can identify a pertinent theme in a focus group and run with it, our ability to adapt and connect make us irreplaceable.

 

JJ Tomlinson
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2018