Big Picture
July 10, 2017

Curating a Big Picture, why research teams need to learn how

By Paul Laughlin

Research teams can be mistakenly viewed as simply research buyers or just project managers, for a number of reasons, including a lack of curating a big picture.

I’m sure anyone leading a research or customer insight team can relate to the problems of such misconceptions. But, what do I mean by ‘curating a big picture‘? In many ways, this is an extension of the points I previously made on knowledge management, but with a focus on research teams.

Here, I’ve seen two elements that can be lacking.

Firstly, insufficient context and secondly, a lack of remembering and connecting what has been learned previously. In this post, I’ll briefly share some advise on both elements.

Missing the Big Picture: Out of Context

Many of the problems I’ll highlight in this post, stem from viewing each piece of (primary or secondary) research in isolation.

The first pitfall, is the danger of viewing your latest insight work in isolation of the wider context. What I mean by that can vary depending on the focus or scope of your research. But, commonly, a researcher should be considering:

  • Context of consumer’s behaviour within their wider life (What is the bigger job they are trying to get done? What appear to be their priorities/goals?)
  • Context of consumer’s attitudes within wider comparison set (What is their attitude towards competitors or sector in general? How have their expectations been raised by other buying or services experiences, including totally outside sector?)
  • Context of consumer’s lifestyle (What is their home/family structure? Do you have proxies for affluence or cultural attitudes? Does location/community matter?)
  • Context of consumer’s concerns (Are their known pressures or threats to their jobs/families/location/life-stage/affluence, from PESTLE range of changes in wider market?)
  • Context of consumer’s events (Can you identify life events that are important to understanding their behaviour or attitudes? Pending marriage/children/divorce/move etc?)

Without seeking to garner as much understanding as possible about this wider context, there is a danger of misinterpreting the drivers of their current attitudes or behaviours. If you get this interpretation wrong, there is a strong likelihood that your recommended hypotheses and actions could be totally wrong for your target audience. Although, well designed & facilitated qualitative research (whether solo interviews or groups) will routinely allow space to capture elements of context, of which consumer is aware. There are likely to still be gaps though.

But, I recognise the above is in danger of being a ‘counsel of perfection‘. Few, if any, insight teams have immediate access to research sources to garner all that context accurately.

Here, recalling the multi-disciplinary nature of Holistic Customer Insight can help. Rather than limiting your focus to just research, consider the information that can be gleaned from other research sources. Seek out market & competitor intelligence, behavioural analytics, results of database marketing campaigns etc. Each can help shed light on your blind-spots.

Missing the Big Picture: Groundhog Day

Anyone else who enjoyed Bill Murray in the 1990s movie “Groundhog Day, will get the meaning of this section. Here I am focussing on the risk of starting each piece of research afresh, as if nothing is already known. Effectively capturing and managing domain knowledge, matters just as much for researchers as it does for data analysts.

Research best practice should be avoiding the worst excesses of this. Any insight leaders looking to control costs in the spending of research budget, should be ensuring that adequate secondary research is undertaken when any new request comes in. That is, checking records to see if the new question can be answered from prior research work, rather than requiring new (expensive) primary research.

However, I am talking about more than that. Not only do I find that busy research teams can neglect the best practice of adequate secondary research, there is also a pitfall in how past research is curated and thus searched.

Is your research team their own worst enemy?

All too often, research teams can be their own worst enemies. What I mean here is that their presentation in research debriefs (or worst still leaving that solely to agencies) can sound like all they needed to do was buy from this clever agency. So, the team are seen solely as buyers.

Another way such teams “shoot themselves in the foot” is in the storage and presentation of past research. Where this is done, all too often it is held in an Excel spreadsheet or Powerpoint slides with embedded hyperlinks to past reports. The problem is not using those tools, but the structure often applied, that organises past research as if it is just a number of completed projects into different subjects = team seen solely as project managers.

To avoid your talented, but busy, researchers regularly feeling a sense of Deja Vu – you need to find a way of curating, storing & presenting past research that better joins the dots.

What joining the dots can look like

What I mean here is a way of building on what has been learned before and connecting evidence to build continually improving understanding and hypotheses about your customers and why you see & hear what you do. Ideally, this should also include evidence from data, analytics & database marketing teams. But research can be a good place to start.

New research should feel like “standing on the shoulders of giants“. Those designing and undertaking the research should be well briefed and have easy access to everything that has been learnt so far, in a coherent form. Enabling them to readily understand hypotheses to date and both test & refine them through what is learnt that is new.

Two tips to improve

So, rather than just highlight a problem in many ‘in-houseresearch teams, can I offer any practical advice to improve the situation? I hope so.

To manage expectations, I have seen very few teams do this well. But, learning from those who have seen success, here are just two things to try with your own team. I suggest reading these in conjunction with my previous posts on both the importance of knowledge management and building domain knowledge. Progress on both those fronts is foundational to sustained improvement here too.

Tell stories to see the Big Picture emerge

One simple way, to start building and capturing the Big Picture content for future work, is to talk more. Akin to the idea of native storytellers gathered around the campfire, it can help to protect time in regular meetings to talk about what everyone has learnt.

As well as keeping the team up-to-date and enabling leaders to gauge understanding and/or issues, doing this together provides a vital opportunity to ‘join the dots‘. Team members should be encouraged to spot where something new builds on, or contradicts, past work. Meeting together with those who managed any past research provides plenty of opportunities for connections to be made and discussed. Surprising insights can emerge, if everyone is heard.

But, how best should this be captured? Another benefit of the storytelling analogy is the concept of crafting a story to capture what has been learnt to date about a topic. If this is already known then the discussion on new insights (joining the dots) can also be used to highlight where a particular story may need to be refined.

We’ve shared previously on the power of stories as narrative structures to communicate key messages. This time, whether the story is heroic or tragic, the focus is normally one of the following:

  • A segment of consumer or customers (however defined, e.g. attitudinal/demographic/behavioural/value, as a structure to capture learning about this group)
  • A channel or media used for marketing or service (how it is used, different audiences between channels, multi-channel attribution, irritants etc)
  • A product or service (differential appeal, utilisation, satisfaction, repeat purchase/use etc)

Rehearsing existing narratives when discussing whether new findings change the story, can be a great way to keep them in the collective consciousness. It can also be worth investing in some copywriting to capture important stories in first person of a customer. Coupled with ‘Vox Pops‘ & capturing emotional impact can improve impact & recall.

Paint a Big Picture to bring it to life

Complementing the audio input of story telling, can be the visual impact of art or infographics.

Previous posts of events I have attended have shown the growing popularity of using artists to capture visual stories or infographics to summarise key points. In a similar way, once the most important insights or most robust stories have been identified (judged by relevance to key business decisions needed), art can help.

Based on my own experience of the engaging nature of ‘big picture‘ graphics to communicate business strategy or key insights of customer groups, I recommend investing in this approach. A skilled graphic designer with a track record in this technique can create graphics that really engage your business. In a world dominated by MS Office outputs, this different kind of visual summary can stand out well in corporate businesses.

Better than just including in a  slide deck, these ‘big pictures’ (or visual stories) work well as posters or art work positioned at key locations around your offices. It can be even more effective to break out of the normal locations, e.g. office notice boards. Seek to achieve either some locations for regular insight summaries (close to gathering points like water coolers or internal coffee shops), or permission to treat these graphics as attractive items to decorate the offices on a more permanent basis.

Two final pieces of advice on this technique:

  1. Be creative in media used. Especially when communicating to key senior meetings, it can work well to bring in unexpected media. Glossy books, life-size realistic personas, posters to cover a wall or even 3D objects, can all work well if you are able to clearly communicate the story they convey.
  2. Create a ritual of updating art work when new insights are gleaned. A great way of engaging your wider business with key new insights, without forgetting context, is to add some ceremony to unveiling updated versions of big pictures. Not too often, but internal campaigns to reveal new pictures can really engage your leaders.

How do you bring a Research Big Picture to life?

I hope those reflections are helpful and spark your own ideas. Do you recognise this challenge? Have you found techniques that work for you?

Please do share your thoughts or examples of big pictures in our comments section below. Alternatively, use the Contact Us page to arrange for a fuller interview or to share photos we could include in a future post.

Let’s continue to improve our storytelling & artistic expressions, to encourage our businesses to become learning organisations w.r.t. Customer Insight.