Long ago, I drove around the south western fringes of Cumbria conducting face-to-face interviews as part of a research project about people’s experiences of call centres. Our last call of the day was to a lovely elderly couple in a very damp house in the furthest reaches of west Cumbria who, despite robust recruitment processes , turned out ‘didn’t hold with the telephone’, were quite deaf and had dealt instead with a local broker in person.
Back in the car we climbed for a two hour drive home… and although the scenery was nice, it wasn’t a terribly productive afternoon in terms of moving the project along. Such experiences did not dampen my enthusiasm for research in general, quite the opposite, but did make the idea of online research seem rather attractive and increase my interest in the role of technology in research.
Technology underpins modern market research. Researchers have always used new technologies, whether it be a shift from note taking to tape recording to mini discs to digital recorders and from conducting surveys face-to-face, to through the post and on phone then by email then by desktop and mobile. This is not just about making life easier for the researcher but ensuring that data is recorded in the most suitable way to then conduct a thorough analysis.
However, in recent years, the number of technologies available to market researchers has grown exponentially, with the rise of widespread internet connectivity and smartphones with cameras and computers with the processing power to crunch massive sets of ‘Big Data’ becoming common place. This has the potential to provide the modern researcher with masses of rich qualitative data and huge complex data sets. Thus, a new challenge has emerged for technology providers in research: to not just facilitate the collection of data, but to allow researchers to easily handle the storage, retrieval, analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data.
There are, broadly, two types of technology providers in market research — the technology firms that provide market research technologies and research firms who provide technology. The former may have originally targeted another sector and expanded their product offering to target market researchers and the latter may have developed their own technology or be leveraging another firms’ white labelled offering under their own brand.
Then there are an increasingly diverse set of technologies for research. There are companies out there specialising in online communities, research panels, survey software, digital diaries, focus groups/IDIs, eye tracking and virtual reality. There are digital agencies conducting social media monitoring. There are sample providers offering sample across a variety of platforms. And then there are companies specialising in automation for data analysis, visualisation, reminders and data cleaning.
The challenge, then, is integrating this wide range of tools so that participants can successfully join the research, research methodologies can be combined, data analysed and visualisations produced.
Key Characteristics of Research Technology
Here at we’re researchers first and foremost but we have developed our own technology from scratch. We developed our own technology because as researchers we believed, and still do, that there are requirements for a good online market research platform that cannot be met by off-the-shelf content management solutions and stitching together 3rd party tools:
- Sample control: It’s important to be able to target your research to the relevant segments and demographics quickly and easily and also to be able to select participants for research tasks based on their responses to previous activities — whether that be points raised in a forum, comments in a focus group or on an image or answers to a survey or quick poll.
- Analysis across data types and sources: Not only is it important to be able to target specific research activities to specific participants but it is also vital to be able to combine, compare and contrast their answers across qualitative and quantitative tasks and to further segment this data by demographic and segment information.
- Access control: Not only is it necessary to be able to control what your research participants can see, it is useful to be able to control what activities your stakeholders can see and even interact with in order to make sure the most relevant insights are accessible to the person in the organisation best positioned to make a decision.
Remembering the Purpose of Research
To some extent it is possible to do all this by building in different 3rd party tools and linking together apps via APIs, but the user experience for the researcher and stakeholder can suffer as a result and you can find yourself logging in and out of different platforms and accounts looking to bring together your data and get closer to your customers.
Let’s not forget that the purpose of using all these technologies is ultimately for us as researchers to get closer to our research participants/customers and understand their lives, their wants, desires, habits and preferences. Then, moreover, it is up to us to make recommendations based on our research that can be translated into real actions to drive businesses and organisations forward. I would argue that this is the point where technology still cannot help and human experience, insight and wisdom have to take over: we’re a long way off a button that you can press marked ‘Actions’ that will make strategic business decisions!
In summary, a technology provider should be able to help you get closer to your, or your clients’ customers, engage your stakeholders and provide impactful insight to your senior management team in order to help them make the right decisions.