Consumer Insight – Interfacing Art with Science

Doron Ben-Shaul, Ph.D., Sagacity Systems

The Consumer Insights convention held by ESOMAR in mid-November highlighted the research industry’s struggle with its desire to find what we all consider to be the “Holy Grail” of our profession – the answer to the question: what really goes on in the minds of consumers when they make purchasing decisions?

In order to present the complexity of the issue we shall borrow an analogy from the medical world. Scientific medicine has managed to provide a solution to a large number of medical problems suffered by patients but we all agree that it cannot solve all of the medical problems that exist. As a result, many patients – and doctors too – turn their sights to the alternative medicine field in order to find the answers that traditional medicine is unable to give. Research too, and particularly qualitative research, has shown signs of needing alternative methods, even if such methods are not entirely scientific, in its attempt to give answers to the difficult questions posed to us by our clients.

In the first part of the consumer insight discovery process at the Convention, we evidenced two approaches. The “scientific” approach was presented by Dr. Stephen Needel of Advances Simulations, who posed difficult questions about the way researchers ask questions and especially about the reliability of the way in which these questions are asked. In his lecture, Dr. Needel presented the vast disparity he has observed between what consumers report to the researchers, and how the very same consumers acts in practice. Dr. Needel was clearly very critical of this problem, as the title of his presentation clearly conveys: “When Good Researchers Go Bad”. Another type of scientific evaluation was presented by Max Kilger in his fascinating article entitled Obesity and Consumer Choice, in which he chose to use the objective scientific evaluation method of BMI to define people as “overweight” at one level or another, and managed to show differences in the consumption of products and services amongst people of differing weights. Kilger chose to focus only on scientific measurement (based on weight and height) and totally disregarded the research subject’s self-perception (does he or she see themselves as overweight or not?). This is a good example of the disparity that can arise between an objective scientific evaluation and the human psychological experience of the consumer.


The other approach is the experiential approach which evolved from the psychoanalytical and anthropological schools. This approach was presented brilliantly by Taiati, Olf & Mariampolski, who used an “artistic” method, in the form of collages and self-reporting by consumers, to identify the customs, myths and passions which influence the consumption of food products in American and Italian culture.

With both approaches, we have “Consumer Doctors” trying to reach a diagnosis about their “patients”, yet one approach prefers to use exact tools and mechanisms, while the other opines that if we only use exact methods we may miss out on a lot of information which may be lying underneath the surface.

Returning to the Convention, it appeared that some speakers viewed the research process holistically. Blach & Hafman’s of Portico Research, for example, discussed an holistic approach to research, which requires references to be made to a variety of factors and components which affect the purchasing process, and not to narrowly focus on questioning the consumer. The article’s writers nonetheless attempted to create some kind of methodology and in so doing suggested a “check list” of sorts, which will prevent errors which may arise in a holistic research process. Alongside the new holistic approach proposed by Blach & Hafman there was also the “old” holistic approach introduced by Pye & Sudbary of Highett-Smith, King & Miller. In this lecture, Pye & Sudbary spoke of a well-known, comprehensive and profound methodology which combines qualitative and quantitative research techniques as well as tracking research which together give a wider picture and insight to enable the implementation of a more successful marketing strategy.

Perhaps the most intriguing element and that which most exemplifies the differences between the scientific approach and the “artistic” approach is the rising use of video to present research data. In his talk, aptly named The Art of Research (voted by the Program Committee as the best article presented at the Convention), Alex Bernstein opined that if we do not study the art of “Visual Story Telling”, our clients will eventually despair at their attempts to understand the complicated messages provided by research and which are currently presented in a “boring” textual reporting manner.

This brief overview of the works presented at the Convention leaves us with difficult yet at the same time challenging questions about the rightful place of consumer insight research when interfacing “art” with science. As alternative medicine demonstrates, the ability to come from an holistic point of view and the willingness to use techniques which cannot be proven scientifically to have any validity lead us many times to better results than we can get from conventional scientific medicine. But if we analyze it deeper, we can see that most people believe in conventional medicine and have more faith in it purely because it can be validated and its effectiveness may be measured. A large proportion of patients of alternative medicine turn to these remedies because their cases are complicated or insoluble by conventional treatment. Turning the spotlight to our field, this analogy begs the question: Has the world of consumer research become disillusioned by conventional research and is now in need of alternative methods of treatment? Or has the trend we witnessed at the Convention exposed an intellectual openness and willingness on our part to adopt more “artistic” methods and techniques in order to act in a complimentary way rather than desiring to replace the scientific research processes?

I welcome these developments in consumer insight research so long as we continue to remind ourselves that we are researchers, and as such we are obligated to the basic codes of Reliability and Validity. To this end, I believe that it is our responsibility to strive to find ways of scientifically validating new insights which we have attained using “artistic” methodologies. One of the main challenges posed by the tension which exists between the “artistic” and the “scientific” is the development of methods and tools which will enable the use of consumer insight expressed in visual symbolism and artistic representations, which may be validated quantitatively using reliable scientific techniques that enable the statistic representation of the population. Such a combination between the artistic and the scientific will make our work as researchers much more profound on a professional level while at the same time allowing our clients to use our data as a basis for making good marketing decisions, which may be measured and evaluated over time.

In our relationship with our clients, we must also remember that we are research institutes, not advertising agencies. A research institute is committed to presenting data as it is, and more importantly – to analyze the data using professional tools. The “alternative” approaches in research may be legitimized only if they are founded on professional techniques for the interpretation of research data. The use of “artistic” techniques to present data must be supported by the implementation of a reliable and exact method of analysis; I strongly believe that the former should not be allowed to supersede the latter.

To finish with the analogy we started off with, the ideal researcher is like a doctor who keeps in his clinic both prescribed antibiotics and a concoction of curative herbs, and knows that while either may do the job well enough, it may very well be that these two treatments together could lead to better results for the patient.