Why consumers aren't good at telling you what they want
13 June 2012
When Steve Jobs was asked if Apple had used consumer research to help design and launch the iPad, he replied “No.” And when asked why not, he said, “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.”
There are a number of reasons why people aren’t good at telling you what they want, or what may influence them, especially in traditional research situations.
1. Research makes people pay more attention than they do in the real world.
Robert Heath, University of Bath Management School and author of “The Hidden Power of Advertising” has written a lot about the theory that we tend to be in one of two modes when we are processing information. One is High Involvement Processing, which is when we are actively paying attention to something, the other Low Involvement processing, which is when our attention is running in the background.
High involvement processing enables us to remember logical detail and recall limited amounts of it very accurately, but often only for a short period of time after paying attention. These memories are triggered voluntarily. Low Involvement Processing, on the other hand, seems to seed memories that are triggered by external episodes where there is some association. These are often more emotional, last longer and seem more powerful in terms of evoking action.
The two major things Robert Heath points out that are important to marketers are:
(i) Nearly all consumer research puts respondents in a high involvement processing mode
(ii) For many brands, entering memory through Low Involvement Processing may be more helpful for marketers.
2. We’re not as rational as we think
Gerald Zaltman Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author of How Customers Think (2003) and Marketing Metaphoria (2008) believes that 95% of decision-making is unconscious; Gary Klein, whose research pioneered the field of Naturalistic Decision Making, and whose findings led to significant changes in military training, estimates that 90% of the critical decisions we make are based on our intuition; and Daniel Kahneman tells us our intuitive system ”is more influential than your experience tells you, and is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make”.
Dan Ariely dissects this in his excellent books “Predictably Irrational” and “The Upside of Irrationality.” We hate to see ourselves as irrational, which is why respondents in research will often choose a more rational approach or one which is easy to rationalise when asked to make a choice.
Most rational reasons are post-rationalizations of emotional or instinctual decision making processes, which were not understood even by experts 50 years ago, and which have their roots in evolutionary psychology. Even people who are aware of the fundamentals of behavioural economics often find it hard to explain their own behaviour in the heat of the moment, yet we spend billions of dollars asking respondents in our research to do exactly that.
3. If people think they are going to have to explain a choice, it affects the choice they make
In a famous study by Timothy Wilson and Douglas Lisle at the University of Virginia, two cells of respondents were asked to choose a poster from a range that went from representative (two puppies playing) to abstract (modern art). Both cells were told that they could return their poster if they didn’t like it. Before they made their choice, one cell was told that they would be asked to explain why they liked the poster they chose.
Two very interesting things happened. The first was that there was a notable difference in the types of posters chosen by each cell. The cell that didn’t have to give their reasons chose more abstract posters and the cell that did have to give their reasons chose posters that were more representative.
The really interesting finding was when the respondents were contacted three weeks later to see if they were happy with their posters and whether they wanted to change them, the respondents who had been asked to give their reasons were significantly less satisfied with their choice.
So it’s not just that people can’t tell you why they might make a certain choice, if they know that you are going to ask them why, they may make a different choice, and that choice may be one that they will be less happy with.
What might lead us to better research?
The prime purpose of the Institute of Decision Making is to stay at the forefront of discoveries and emerging thinking in the field of decision sciences. In doing this we are becoming increasingly knowledgeable in three areas:
1. Cognitive biases and heuristics that drive the unconscious aspects of decision-making. Much of this falls under the area of Behavioural Economics. We have worked with some respected behavioural economists and have connections with many others.
2. Neuroeconomics, which is the application of neuroscience and other biometric measures to understand cognitive load and arousal whether as reactions to stimuli, or during a choice test. We have become reasonably fluent with the main methods, and have an advisor at Stanford who helps us understand the real science rather than taking the sales pitches at face value.
3. Implicit Association. This covers a range of techniques where the time in which it takes to respond is used to understand the real or implicit feelings of the respondent about stimulus.
None of these techniques is a silver bullet, and there is some evidence that many work best in conjunction with more traditional research, but all of them go beyond asking people what they think and taking those answers at face value.
Our aim is to keep pushing the envelope in understanding what is new and interesting in these areas so that we can help marketers understand what consumers can’t tell them. Not because it’s not their job, but because they are poorly equipped to do so.
Matthew Willcox, executive director, Draftfcb's Institute of Decision Making