Before the brief: Observation

The first in a limited series about what brand & communications strategists should do *before* they write a creative brief

Farrah Bostic
Nov 27, 2019 · 9 min read

Author’s note: Yesterday I wrote a series of tweets about this, but thought it might be useful to assemble them in one short article, and address some of the feedback I got, as well. Thanks to all who replied.

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Something I noticed on my way to a site visit this week. Cool scaffolding! Who knew!

A lot of emphasis is placed on the creative brief. The creative brief is the primary deliverable of a brand, communications, social, digital, content, experiential or design strategist.

I, personally, hate creative briefs.

To me, creative briefs are dead letters. They’re useless upon delivery. All of the energy, insight, excitement, inspiration, and joy have been sucked out of them, through a careful process of extraction known as “approvals”.

But they are also essential. A good brief makes good creative work possible, and a great brief makes great creative work possible.

So, how do you write a good brief? By taking a little time to develop insight. And how do you develop insight? Well, I’m glad you asked, because that’s the purpose of these “Before the Brief” posts. To provide practical, basic, beginner level advice on literally how to do the work of developing insight into your client’s brand, competition, context, consumer, prospect, and problems. From there, you’ll begin to develop ideas about how to solve those problems, and you’ll be able to spot opportunities they haven’t taken advantage of yet.

Sound good? Cool. I promise not to write all this preamble again.

So, let’s start. Today I want to talk about…

How to do observational research

First, why should you do observational research? Because you should have a first-hand point of view on your client’s business, and her competition. When they talk about their store, their packaging, their products or services, their content, their collateral materials, their sales and customer service staff, you should have a tangible reference point — your own experience.

You should also have a front row seat to the customer’s experience. You can think about the client’s target audience all day, and surmise all sorts of things from other projects you’ve worked on, or your own beliefs about what those kinds of people are into. But until you’ve experienced what they experience, the way they would experience it, you don’t really know what it’s like to be them, at all.

Is observational research enough? No. But it’s an invaluable start, and is often (though not always) really inexpensive to do. I’m going to focus on the least invasive method of observational research: the store check, site visit, or if you’re feeling fancy, service safari.

Start with two important questions to ask yourself:

  • How do customers experience the brand?
  • Where does that take place?

Write down all the places that customers experience the brand — all the touchpoints they might encounter, from ads on bus shelters to the website to the cashier’s desk to a phone call to customer service. For B2B brands, this might mean going to tour a warehouse or a call center or a trading desk. For B2C brands, it’s as simple as visiting a shop that carries your client’s brand. Media brands are the easiest: just watch, listen to, and read their stuff.

Now, pick one or more places to go. My trip yesterday was to a brick and mortar retail store, and then to a smaller pop-up. This brand happens to have stores all over the country, and I have some other travel coming up, so I’ll try to pop in to their stores in a few other places. And I’ll try to experience one or two of their closest competitors, too.

Give yourself plenty of time. Block out a minimum of two hours to be in and around the place you’re visiting. Depending on the size of the place, and how much there is to see, you’ll need time to get oriented, and then to make sure you didn’t miss anything. You should get a feel for the immediate neighborhood, too, if you can. Don’t forget to factor in travel time — but add it to the total time, don’t subtract. If it takes you an hour to get there, you still need two hours on site, so budget closer to 4 hours.

Tell someone where you’re going, and ideally, bring a buddy. This is for your safety, but also because an extra set of human sensors (eyes, ears) is always a good idea. Know that if at any time you feel unsafe, it’s okay to leave, even if you haven’t been there very long. Trust your gut on this. It also helps for your manager to know you’re out Doing Research, not playing hooky.

Set a budget. You might be able to do everything you want to do for no out of pocket cost besides gas, subway or taxi fare. But you might want to get a fuller taste of the experience by making a purchase, or eating or drinking something. If you need to clear this with your boss, do so ahead of time. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything.

Now, some folks on twitter felt that I was suggesting this work should be given away for free, or that it represents some sort of opportunity cost. I do not believe you should do this work for free. I budget for it in project costs across all my projects. Your agency should assume that some amount of hours for insight development will be spent doing this, and should allocate time for it, preferably of the billable variety.

But even if it’s not in the budget, I don’t agree it’s an opportunity cost. The cost of trying to develop a creative brief solely on the information provided to you, usually by the marketing client who too often doesn’t spend time with real customers, is far greater — the work suffers, and in the end, bad work is a waste of their money, and your time and talent. When a client feels you “just don’t get it” or you “don’t understand my business” it can have far-reaching and deeply damaging effects on the agency, and for that matter on the industry. Just do it.

Charge your phone. Just, always charge your phone.

I think it’s best to travel light. Who wants to lug around a bunch of junk?

Your phone is probably your best friend here. You can (most likely) take photos, video, and record audio on it. If it was made any time in the last, say, three years, it’s probably pretty damned good quality.

A notebook and a pen will also help with capturing notes, impressions, or even making sketches. If you prefer to do all these things on your phone, the notetaking app on your phone is probably good enough. Or you can record voice memos to yourself, but remember to listen to them again later.

Your business card. If someone notices you hanging out for a long time and wants to know what you’re doing, tell the truth. You’re trying to understand the “x” category better and want to experience it firsthand. If they ask you to stop taking pictures or recording, first, assure them it’s for internal use only, just to help your memory and show your colleagues a few things — and then, if they insist, stop.

Then, just pack the usual things: wallet, keys, sunglasses, lip balm.

I want to say one more thing about permission. I’m mainly describing the kinds of site visits that ideally, should not require your client’s participation, facilitation or, hell, even their knowledge. If it’s a space that is open to the public, just go be part of the public. But if you want to ride along with a delivery driver — it might be best to ask your client to facilitate that for you. If the best way to experience the brand is more intrusive — inside someone’s home, or a secure facility — this will take more planning than I’m outlining here. But if the best way to experience, say, diaper purchasing is to go to a drugstore in the middle of the night — just go.

What should I jot down or sketch?

  • Any thing that captures something I couldn’t or didn’t take a picture of, but that stood out to me. This could be smells, sounds, snippets of overheard conversation, the mood people are in, the way you’re feeling.
  • Sometimes I like to sketch layouts or little maps, more talented or tolerant sketchers may like to draw loose renderings of the people or of objects they notice.
  • Write down any reflections on the purchase experience if you made a purchase, or on the returns process if you returned an item.
  • Make a note of your interactions with salespeople, customer service representatives or other customers.
  • You can do this in your notebook or in a note app.

While you’re there, you might as well talk to people.

I think this is the thing we all secretly dread. Talking to strangers. But if you don’t think of yourself as “doing research” it gets a lot easier. Ask questions of the people who work there. Chat with other customers waiting in line or seated near you. Make eye contact. Take out your earphones. Maybe even smile. Look like someone who’s willing to listen.

On my way to the site visit, I got in some practice. I had a lovely subway conversation with an art director named Greg about the latest Colson Whitehead book, and then the fellow who sat down after Greg left was feeling jubilant about having Thanksgiving week off from work for the fourth year in a row and wanted to tell me how much he loved his job and that he was about to get a haircut. Humans are pretty great most of the time, especially if you start from that principle.

What should you take pictures of?

  • Signage/wayfinding
  • Collateral materials
  • Displays
  • Services
  • Entrances
  • People doing things (if that feels okay, be sensitive & make good choices)
  • Anything that surprises you or gets an emotional response from your cold dark soul

What should you take video of?

  • If it’s cool, hold the phone at chest-level and record a walk-through.
  • Any video or interactive displays
  • Anything designed to move
  • If someone consents to talk to you on camera, record them.
    Get consent first

What about audio? (audio is freaking awesome!)

  • Take audio notes! Record little voice memos of what you’re seeing and noticing
  • If someone will talk to you but not on camera, maybe they will on mic
  • Music, signature sounds or announcements
    (I have audio of the revolving doors at JFK Terminal 5.)

You might have thought I was kidding.

A note about accessibility and representation.

Accessibility matters. If you are able-bodied, pay attention to accessibility in a way you ordinarily never do. Try to imagine how you would get into and navigate a space if you were in a wheelchair or needed crutches or had limited sight or hearing. Observe how are people who need assistance are treated. Notice how people pushing strollers, using walkers or canes, using hearing aids, or accompanied by a service animal navigate the space. Notice ramps, elevators and escalators, Braille, audio assistance, and so on.

Representation matters. Notice if everybody in the place looks like you, or not. Notice if there are major differences between the people who work there and the people who shop there. Notice how staff treat the customers; notice how customers treat the staff. What patterns do you see? What explains those patterns?

This is where the -graphy in ethnography comes into play. All the documentation you’ve done up to this point should be memorialized. I like to sit down and do a big free write of everything I noticed.

Then I like to go back through all the pictures and audio and video. I’ll mark up images with what I was focused on when I took the photo. And I’ll summarize what I observed using the AEIOU tool:

  • Activities — what are people doing?
  • Environment — where are they doing it?
  • Interactions — between people or people & objects
  • Objects — what are those objects?
  • Users — who are these people?

Now, share what you observed with your team. Don’t just tell them about it, show them what you captured, play the video or audio. Collaboratively, talk about these observations, capture questions as they come up and answer them if you can. Identify some areas that seem like opportunities to solve the client’s problem or explore an opportunity. Brainstorm solutions and ideas.

You’re not done yet. You probably don’t have quite enough for a creative brief, but you should feel far more grounded in the lived experience of customers and salespeople. You might even feel energized and want to do some more of this. Don’t go crazy — know how much is enough — but if you had fun, learned things, if your mind is racing with ideas and questions, it was a good outing, and well worth the time and effort.

Happy hunting.

The Difference Engine LLC

We help businesses & brands make decisions with confidence…

Farrah Bostic

Written by

Founder of The Difference Engine @DifferenceNGN. I listen to humans so I can help businesses all over the world make important brand & business decisions.

The Difference Engine LLC

We help businesses & brands make decisions with confidence & creativity.

Farrah Bostic

Written by

Founder of The Difference Engine @DifferenceNGN. I listen to humans so I can help businesses all over the world make important brand & business decisions.

The Difference Engine LLC

We help businesses & brands make decisions with confidence & creativity.

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