As I was introduced onto the iconic TEDx red-dot, two thoughts crossed my mind.

  1. Why did I have to follow Hannibal the Robot? — who incidentally managed to illustrate beautifully just how utterly unprepared we are for the massive advancement in technology we’re all soon to experience.
  2. The realisation that my opening remarks were likely to offend the more hipster looking members of the audience — and that there were quite a few.

Well it was now or never — time to challenge the perception that customer insight is a prerequisite of success…

You may have noticed that of late, the words ‘lean’, ‘reiteration’, and of course ‘insight’ are being thrown around and promoted by the latest ‘how-to’ books and innovation methodologies.

The idea of focus groups, ‘voxpops’ and audience interviews are being integrated (often not in earnest) into every ‘innovative’ business and small team — no matter the scenario, no matter the market. Over the next few paragraphs, I’d like to share another perspective — one that might help you question less, frame later and allow you to follow your instincts, and not just the results of your agency’s survey…

Smile. You’re on Camera.

We all do it. Think about last time you were at an event, relaxed and in mid-conversation when without warning your back straightened and your chin lifted. Before you knew it you’d smoothed your clothes and corrected your expression into one deemed more appropriate.


The above is known as the Hawthorne Effect, named after research that was carried out by a factory owner trying to determine whether light levels had an impact on productivity. It transpired that it didn’t matter whether a room grew darker or lighter — productivity still went up. It wasn’t the light level that was attributed to the increase in output, it was the change in variable — people worked harder when the light changed because they thought they were being watched. If you are the variable and not the constant, then your presence by default will have an effect on the outcome — you will change the very reaction you are trying to capture. If what you’re seeing is not typical, then it cannot be relied upon.

Love the Question?!

There are four big issues with loving the question:

1. Principles are not a reliable indicators for action

I’m sure you have spoken to colleagues, customers, friends — partners. Who seem genuinely enthused by your proposition — you believe there is a market fit, because your market has told you as much.

“Sarah — yes! A key holder just inside the door is a great idea, I won’t ever lose my keys again, and you won’t moan at me anymore — done, super.”

So you buy the key holder, you put it up — it’s used for one day and then it’s used no more. The takeaway? Don’t underestimate the pull of habits. Don’t believe the answer, if you want action not intent then you need to communicate, incentivise and reward — continuously.

2. You know the answer — and if you don’t you really should

Qualitative research data is only as good as the questions asked but even with the right question don’t assume that people will know the answer.

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.
Henry Ford.

Remember, people can only make comparisons to what they know and expect. They have their own perspective and in the case of business insight, they will likely know less and care less about their fellow ‘archetype personas’ than you do.

3. Interviewees are swayed by bias

Consider — are you paying them — how much? Who’s interviewing them — are they casual or professional? What time of day are you talking to them — are they in a rush to get away? What’s the social and/or moral implication of this — is there one for them? What do they think they should say? Does this proposition support or conflict their own point of view?

“Ask a loaded question and you’ll get a bias answer.”

4. It’s already been answered — accurately

Don’t become so obsessed with ‘quality’ and collaboration that you neglect the obvious. Use the data you have — distil and analyse the unbiased transcript of habits and behaviours over time. If you’re working in an established business, you will gain more from this than you ever will attempting to interview current and new customers…

Testing and insight are not the same

In all of this, I am not saying that you should go out untried and untested. It is of course important to take people on the journey with you — just don’t restrict your ability to create by asking for input before there’s any real output.

“If you frame the opportunity too early, then you risk not seeing the opportunity at all”

My closing remark? “The difference between a smart idea and successful one will always be defined more by the application of instinct than external insight. If you truly know your market, then you already have the ability to understand a problem, uncover an opportunity and make a connection that others have yet to find.”

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