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In a previous post for Greenbook, I talked through the concept of Research Outlaws. In a world without direct questions, four brave researchers would be set a real problem by a real client and solve it using innovative methods. On paper, it worked. In reality....


By Tom Ewing

In a previous post for Greenbook, I talked through the concept of Research Outlaws, the panel I ran at the MRS 2012 conference this week. In a world without direct questions, four brave researchers would be set a real problem by a real client and solve it using innovative methods. On paper, it worked. In reality, even as I was sending Lenny the blog post I was biting my nails about how it would go down at the conference. Would the audience get it? Would the insights be any good? Was six minutes enough to do justice do some of these methodologies? And since four of my five participants were flying into London specially, would the panel even convene?

As it turned out, we only lost one outlaw – our Unilever client was called away on urgent business and couldn’t be there physically. But he’d already given us two great household care briefs for our outlaws to dig into – how can cleaning be made more enjoyable for UK consumers, and why are English consumers so scared of germs when they’re no less clean or dirty than any other Europeans?

Siamack Salari of EthOS took on the “make cleaning fun” brief with mobile ethnography. Ethnography, as Siamack pointed out, is a lot more than “qualitative research with a video camera” – by filming themselves rather than performing for an observer, participants often reveal a great deal. Freed from a specific question, as Siamack put it, “the choice of data becomes the data”. In the case of household cleaning, Siamack zoomed in on the difference between enjoyment and engagement. When people claimed they were making cleaning more engaging, in reality they were disengaging by distracting themselves with singing or other strategies. Siamack’s short videos included plenty more insight – about the improvised nature of cleaning tools and the need to dirt to be visible – which he touched on before handing the mic to David Bausola of Philter Phactory.

Bausola is a technologist who builds innovative search tools called Weavrs – search engines and algorithms which can be programmed with individual personas and make their own way round the web returning material. Different research agencies have used Philter Phactory’s technology in different ways – BrainJuicer’s DigiVidualsTM uses it to collect material for qualitative analysis, for example. But what can Weavrs tell us about household cleaning? David’s idea was simple but provocative – forget consumer insight, since in a few years we won’t be researching them. “If algorithms can identify human needs and interests,” David said, “then their role replaces the need for consumers to listen to brand communications.” A Weavr in your washing machine can understand how you want your cleaning done and act accordingly: it might not make loading up the washer any easier, but you’ll never have to hear a soap powder ad again.

Steve Phillips of Spring brought things down to earth with a simple experiment on behavioral economic principles. Set up two dirty rooms, he said, and make cleaning the second one optional. Then vary the conditions in the first, adding things like music or positive feedback. The number of people who volunteer to clean the second room becomes a behavioral proxy measure for the enjoyment of the cleaning task. It was an elegant solution, and Steve announced that “mastery” of the task was the biggest driver of engagement.

Finally, Greg Rowland, of Greg Rowland Semiotics, talked us through the second brief – on why UK consumers feared germs so much. It’s because, he said, the English are scared of their bodies, and to be brought face to face with dirt is to be forced to confront the body. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to be far more comfortable, as anyone who’s been to a German sauna can testify. So cleaning products for the English needed to either reassure them that “good enough” cleaning was OK after all – or go in the other direction and seal dirt away utterly in a laminated world!

Did any of these convince? With no client there to judge, an audience “holler-ometer” found in favor of Greg and his body-phobic Englishmen. The crowd left happy, and later on we were proud to get a commendation in the Best Session award.

Ultimately, I was delighted by the outcome of our Outlaws experiment. I hadn’t seen any of the results until I received the presentations – in one case hours before – and I found the insights and approaches fascinating. With six minutes each, our Outlaws could offer only the briefest tour of some exciting areas, but it was still enough to convince me that we were right to put a panel together emphasizing doing over talking about new method – and that should get a second installment together, further exploring the “post-question” world. After all, there are plenty of routes to insight left to explore: maybe next time it’ll be network analysis, agent-based modelling, improvisational theatre and mass observation in the spotlight as the Outlaws wagon train rolls to a conference near you.


Tom Ewing works for BrainJuicer as their Digital Culture Officer. If any Conference Organizer wants to get in touch about the Research Outlaws panel format, please do get in touch!

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