On the cusp of a revolution… still

After a flurry of New Year articles predicting the same future they predicted for the last ten years Neil has decided it’s time to state the obvious instead.

For some it will seem that I am still a relative newcomer to the research world when I say that I started my first job at the end of 2007. 6 months after the launch of the first generation iPhone and with internet bandwidth becoming more practical the BBC was about to launch the iPlayer. The words Instagram, Airbnb and Deliveroo didn’t exist and Uber just meant ‘awesome’ in German.*  

We were on the cusp of a revolution. Online tools were promising to give us access direct into the consumer’s world, and cheaply! Nascent facial recognition and neuroscience technology was going to become the ubiquitous means of understanding how we measured sentiment and emotional response and, as people began to live their lives increasingly online, we were wondering what the future would be for bricks and mortar shops, linear television and face to face interaction.

2018. Ten years later and the usual flurry of articles trying to predict the near future. Online tools promise they can connect us to anyone to talk about anything, for a price. Facial recognition on the eye-wateringly priced iPhone X promises a future where facial recognition will be ubiquitous and won’t just unlock your phone and send an animated emoji.  As people now live their lives increasingly online, articles continue to hypothesise what the future will be for bricks and mortar shops, linear TV and face to face interaction.

Ten years ago it seemed that by 2018 video technology and neuroscience techniques would completely replace the need to drive around the country or fly around the world actually meeting people. Face to Face research would be over.

So what has actually happened? So far online tools haven’t proved that cost effective. Online purchasing, which was going to completely destroy the high street, has certainly put it under pressure and changed the game. However, the percentage of retail sales online in the UK isn’t 90%, it’s not 50%, it’s not even 30%, it is 17%!** And facial recognition? Nothing suggests it’s better than meeting someone and looking into the whites of their eyes as they see a new idea for the first time, so far at least.

That’s why, in 2018, we will be spending next week conducting face to face research in traditional research venues on three different continents.

I’m no Luddite though. We’ve used online research groups, and social media in our research to great effect. But they are tools, helping us to understand the different behaviours and motivations online and off. They add to our research designs, they don’t replace the old way completely, and that’s not because we are stuck in the past but because the old ways work! But why? Because the online world might be monumentally important but it’s still just a tool. We still live in houses, with products and (for the majority) actual TV sets.

Facebook keeps you in touch with people, but you still meet them for a drink or something to eat. Your smartphone gives you access to all of the information and people you will ever need, but only so that you are properly informed when you all come together in a meeting room. Facial recognition gives you… well that still just unlocks your phone***. These are tools that make your offline life easier and more fulfilled but they have added to, rather than replaced the real world interaction we have. That’s why 10 years later we haven’t ditched face to face research but have simply added a whole new bunch of tools to our increasingly flexible research designs. We don’t design our research to the latest fad or buzzword. We design our research to what will work for the brief, be that Facebook interaction, online groups, face to face groups or even ethnography in consumers’ homes.

*Of course that’s not completely accurate
**https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/retailindustry/bulletins/retailsales/november2017#whats-the-story-in-online-sales                    
***If you paid enough for it.