The BS around Bias

The BS around Bias

“Never let the respondent know the brand name or the true purpose of the research. Tell them you are a researcher studying the general category, and then you will publish a report. You can always debrief them at the end of the study about the broader purpose. If you don’t follow this, the respondent will try to give you answers that are biased towards pleasing you. You will not get the truth.”

I was given this wisdom early in my career from one of the demigods of qualitative research in India at the time. On the face of it, this sounds like good advice.

However, decades of practicing human-centered strategy tell me to jettison every word here.

The research world is overwhelmed with concerns around bias. The vantage point of all research is that respondents will be untrue to themselves and their opinions to please the researcher.

This entire construct is designed for gaming the ‘wily respondent” into a neutral zone so the truth can come out.

Now, look at this whole construct from the respondent’s point of view. They know that the true purpose of the research is not being revealed. Yet, during the entire conversation, they are trying to guess the true intent of the line of questioning.

Naturally, they become reticent of revealing much about themselves. And the entire conversation is limited only to the respondent’s relationship with the category and the brands. Thus, it seriously stymies any discovery of who they are.

One other thing that the research world does is to exclude anyone who is connected to the world of the category or works in marketing and allied fields. So anyone working in advertising, media, research, or the specific category being studied is an “expert” who will give “expert advice” and must therefore be excluded from all examination.

This excludes people who may have unique perspectives into the category from giving their views. Rather than focusing on ensuring that they are in a frame to speak about their personal experience, we exclude them altogether. However, marketing teams and ad agencies are always open to internal brainstorming with the very people they otherwise exclude!

All this tells us that the blight of bias is overblown. What we need is to create an atmosphere of trust between the researcher and the respondent. So that an honest and free conversation can happen. The first step is to tell the respondents why this research is being done. Which brand is doing it. What is the problem the brand is trying to solve? And how the researcher chose them as someone to speak with.

All this needs to happen before the researcher can ask for a frank and free conversation.

Otherwise, we will get neutral and useless data. The actual intensity of the feelings, which is the ultimate truth, will be hidden from those who seek it.

Market researchers worry about bias too much.

They don’t tell respondents which brand the research is for.

Often the stated purpose is vague. For example, “It’s a general study for a report.”

So customers are often second-guessing why the researcher is asking these questions.

Stop playing games with customers. Instead, tell them the truth about why you are doing this research. And for whom.

If you want customers to tell the truth, you need to start telling it first.

Navin Narayanan is a partner at Centre of Gravity. He leads HumanWorks, the school of Centre of Gravity where we teach the philosophy and method of Human-Centered Thinking and its allied skills.

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