From time to time this section will have rants and raves, things that get our hackles up and things that we think you might find interesting in the world of Qualitative Research.

Lately, it seems to be very “in vogue” to follow in the footsteps Steve Jobs is alleged to have walked and dismiss consumer research as useless, reactionary, misleading, and/or a waste of time and resources. The argument goes something like this:

“Consumer research can’t lead to innovation because the consumer doesn’t know what they want, or they can’t envision something that doesn’t yet exist.” Henry Ford is often credited as having said that if he’d asked people what they want, all they’d have said is “a faster horse”.

Sadly, the underpinning of those arguments is the assumption that consumer research is nothing more than asking people direct questions and taking their answers to those questions at face value. That is not consumer research – at least, that’s not what we do at RABID Research, and it’s not what any good professional researcher does.

If a person gets into a car with the intention of driving to Florida but ends up in Maine, the fault lies with the driver, not with the car. And if a company fields a consumer research study that results in useless, reactionary or misleading learning, the fault isn’t with consumer research per se – it’s with the way the research was conducted and, just as importantly, with the way it was analyzed.

Good consumer research means finding ways to identify what people do, how they do it, how they feel about it, and what would make what they’re doing better, easier, more satisfying, less aggravating, etc. Getting that information entails far more than simply asking people direct questions – it requires the use of a range of different techniques that will vary based on the learning objectives and the target population, and then being able to interpret the data in ways that provide genuine insights into both current behaviors and unmet or latent needs.

Unfortunately, technology has made it relatively simple to find consumers and ask them direct questions – so easy, in fact, that some companies have begun to assume they have no need for an independent, professional researcher. And then, strangely enough, they blame “consumer research” for marketplace failures based on what they think consumers were telling them. The problem is two-fold – the questions often were asked the wrong way, and the answers were taken at face value, without the interpretive filter that professional researchers understand needs to be in place when analyzing data.

Let’s take Henry Ford’s famous quip as an example. Indeed, had Henry asked 20 (or 200) consumers what they wanted, they might well have all answered that they wanted a faster horse. But what would they have really been saying? First, that they wanted the ability to travel from one place to another faster than they could by horse. And if that was probed more deeply by a trained researcher, they might have revealed why speed of travel mattered, what the ultimate end benefits of faster travel might be, and what they would (or wouldn’t) be willing to trade off to achieve those benefits.

Would the consumer have invented the automobile? Of course not. But they could have easily provided the inspiration to invent a product that delivered on the desired benefits and that filled the unmet or latent needs the consumer was expressing – and that might well have been an automobile… or a motorcycle… or an airplane.

And a good consumer researcher could have helped our friend Henry avoid a bad mistake he made later in life when he decided that there was no reason to ever make a car in any color other than black. A good consumer researcher could have identified the ways in which a car was more than just a means of transportation – it was a status symbol, an expression of personal affluence, and, because it had symbolic meaning, could also be an expression of personal style – which might easily have led to the development of automobiles in a range of colors and visual styles beyond the basic black Model T.

There’s no question that bad consumer research can lead to terrible mistakes in the marketplace, just as a bad driver can do terrible things behind the steering wheel of a car. But that doesn’t mean that consumer research is useless – it simply means that it’s important to hire a professional who is capable of both designing a study that will reveal true insights, and of interpreting the data in ways that lead a company to make good decisions.