So connected you don’t have time to think? Susan Greenfield at the RSA

Quite an interesting talk at the RSA this, with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield plugging her new book Mind Change, in conversation with Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre (an extremely interesting bloke btw – and more about the Social Brain project is here: http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain). Greenfield’s talk gets across some of the basic ideas about neuro-plasticity to a lay audience (and I’m very lay).

I liked this little summary of the two-way-street of experience and changes in the brain:

Every experience you are having will upgrade and update your connections and every experience you are having will be judged and evaluated through the existing connections.

So we experience everything with the brain as it is now; but the next time we come to it, our brain will have been changed a little and we’ll experience it differently. And so forth.

What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse's 'Siddartha'

What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddartha’

It’s a simple enough concept, but actually not perhaps how many of us are used to thinking of the effect of our own thoughts and habits. We can live with the idea of little changes in our brain, but the effects of that accumulated over time – that it in a real sense changes who we are – is much more troubling.

Rowson appeared frustrated at times, during the on-stage interview section, trying to coax Greenfield into saying what she was really getting at with her book. She seemed strangely reluctant until quite late on to talk directly about her suspicion that digital technologies are having strong effects on how our brains are developing. She was eventually drawn, saying: “We might be looking at unprecedented changes.” Her thoughts echo Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which I reviewed here http://shorequalblog.com/2012/07/21/hang-on-to-your-ego-nicholas-carrs-the-shallows/ in warning against making computers and digital technologies an end in themselves rather than what they should be, a means to human ends.

The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his own drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?

The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his digital drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?

Greenfield urges that we spend more time thinking about what those ends should be – what the good life might look like – and use machines to help us get there. The alternative is following dumbly in the wake of the latest technological breakthrough. Technological breakthroughs happen according to their own logic and while they may thrill tech fans, they don’t necessarily point the direction we should be going. People need to do that for themselves.

The little film is particularly worth watching from about the 40 minute mark onwards, as Greenfield gets into the meat of her arguments after much prompting from Rowson. In particular, she argues persuasively that human creativity is special and something we need to protect and nurture in the digital age. By creativity, she means a three-stage process:

  1. the ability to deconstruct something
  2. then put it back together differently, combining with unusual things in new ways
  3. then, crucially, make it all mean something (the step often missed, Greenfield observes, by “people on drugs who think they’re poets”)

Our “obsession with being connected all the time” is actually an enemy of the creative process. It distracts us towards shallower, less satisfying pleasures. The danger, she says, quoting Eric Schmidt, is “being so connected you don’t have time to think.”

We are living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'

Are we twitterati living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’?

An argument, if ever I heard one, in my own field of qual, for taking time over our analysis and giving due weight to individual as well as collective work. We’re great at bringing minds together to move thinking forward; but we also need to let individual participants and collaborators breathe too. Creative pre-tasking as key, again? I do love those scrapbooks …

So, a frustrating performance at times by Greenfield but a strong voice added to a growing argument. Digital technologies will continue to change us, literally, in terms of our habits of mind and our ways of thinking. They can help us; but we need to be on our guard too. It may be time to start thinking much more seriously about how we want technology to improve our lives – and making sure it really does.

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Signs of life: why qual and semiotics are natural partners

Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she's younger than she really is

Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she’s younger than she really is

I came across this today by Czech semiotician Martina Olbertova, via Joanna Chrzanowska’s brilliant and generous resource, the Qualitative Mind website (www.qualitativemind.com; follow her on Twitter on @QualitativeMind; Joanna’s site is full of great information and resources for qual researchers and research buyers alike). Olbertova gives an introduction for the skeptical and/or uninitiated to the not-so-mystical realm of semiotics. It remains something, in my experience of talking to other researchers and clients, that most people know vaguely of, but are very reluctant to actually do. Yet it is surely one of the key tools for brand and market understanding.

I’m not a semiotician myself (yet … maybe one day!) but I’m a convinced fan of the use of semiotic enquiry to tackle touch marketing and comms challenges. Why?

Give me a sign, any sign ...

Give me a sign, any sign …

As Olbertova explains, there is a limit to what you can learn from consumers themselves. I’ve found this in my own experience. Take a piece of packaging research, for example. We get useful insights on what the pack colour means to people, even what it signifies to them, what different versions of the logo suggest, all that. But what we miss, often, is the context. What are the prevailing ways of brands expressing themselves in this category? Where does this pack sit in relation to the rest of the category? Adjacent categories?

A few years ago I used semiotics to help a leading brand in laundry adjust its image. We also used some quite original triangulated conflict groups (one for another day) and consumer laundry visual diaries, but the semiotics piece – a survey of the visual language of the laundry category and of consumer language around ‘cleaning’ – helped me hugely in making sense of what I was hearing and seeing from consumers. It provided a detailed yet clear relief map onto which I could chart how consumers saw the world of cleaning in general and my client’s brand in particular.

No wonder I keep crashing the car

No wonder I keep crashing the car

Consumers can give you a useful start on mapping out their visual worlds for you. But casting the net comprehensively across a whole category is an exercise for a semiotician with a cold towel over his/her head and a few days to work on it. That’s because the questions we’re really asking here are only partly about consumer perceptions. They start essentially as factual questions: about what competitor products look like, what colours and shapes they use, what words they use.

Consumers aren’t there in qual research projects to be comprehensive, in-depth loggers of everything that’s out there. If we ask them to do that, they stop behaving as consumers and we start to lose the point of seeking their input in the first place. What consumers give us is a piecemeal picture of the world as they see it – and that’s very important, we want that. What a semiotic analysis of a category offers (among other things) is something different: a systematic way of logging, surveying and analysing the visual environment the consumers find themselves in, noting patterns that are so hidden or indeed so obvious, that consumers may not notice their importance, even using our toolkit of projectives and all the rest. Crucially, semiotic analysis does more than just record the presence of pieces of packaging, ads, logos, images and so on, it looks at what messages those things are broadcasting. How those broadcasts are received by people encountering them is another question – and that’s where my qual comes in.

Piecing it all together

Piecing it all together

If you are seeking things like stand-out, cut-through, relevance for a piece of brand communication – and let’s face it, these are at the core of much branding comms research – bringing in some semiotic thinking can clarify things a lot. For example, semiotics can tell a brand manager: these are the standard ways brands communicate in this category – and these are ways you can play by or break the rules if you want to. Qual can then come in to look at how particular pieces of communication are received, wise to all the communicative tropes.

It went thattaway

More meaning, fewer graphs

As a qual research consultant, my approach is to bring in experts in related fields to partner with me to meet my clients’ needs in full. I understand the basics of semiotics but I look to full-time practitioners to deliver this service in partnership with Shore. I’d like to name-check Chris Arning here (www.creativesemiotics.co.uk; Twitter: @semiotico), who’s been a helpful interlocutor for me in recent years as I seek to learn more about semiotics. Founder of his own consultancy Creative Semiotics, he’s one of the leading UK commercial semiotics practitioners. He’s done some great introductory videos too:

Anyone wanting to really get to the bottom of a knotty brand comms problem could do worse than have a chat to Chris.

Semiotics doesn’t do away with the need for qual research; it is complementary to it. If we have the budget, we can have BOTH our real-time, self-generated nuggets of participant data AND bring in others methods for getting to richer, smarter, more actionable findings.

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No Cuts (on bagels): when you get it wrong, you “gotta” change

"This might look like an embarrassing reversal but the main point is, we listened to YOU. Just don't tell us to slice again or we'll hit you."

“This might look like an embarrassing reversal but the main point is, we listened to YOU. Just don’t tell us to slice again or we’ll hit you.”

I was surprised to see on the side of my bagel packet this morning the aftermath of an emotionally charged drama, as heart-wrenching as anything seen since Sophocles.

It appears the New York Bakery Company’s recent habit of pre-slicing the bagels has been discontinued, due to some kind of wild public outcry.

I sincerely hope it wasn’t market research that occasioned this cowardly loss of nerve by everyone’s favourite purveyors of boil ‘n’ bake yeasted wheat rings. I can only hope it was a twitterstorm or some kind of Occupy Movement sit-in that prompted this humiliating volte face. Perhaps they saw this and took it the wrong way:

We must listen to the people ...

We must listen to the people …

Call me weird, but I couldn’t help checking out how the Rotherham-based bakers’ website handled the climb-down. Here’s what they say:

Dear Bagel Fans
We have been listening to your feedback about our recent decision to stop slicing our Plain [capital ‘p’ – are you sure? Ed] bagels. We’re sorry that some of you are disappointed with our decision – trust us, it wasn’t taken lightly.
But we know that pre-slicing affected the quality of our bagels and here at New York Bakery Co. that’s what we’re all about, no compromise.
That’s why our original, unsliced bagel is back. We just wanna make the best bagels we can.

They wanna and they’re gonna. And I gotta say, I’m glad they did it.

And if you’re going to do it, do it with the chutzpah for which New Yorkers – and people who live in Rotherham – are renowned. Cos they ain’t slicing nothing no more. The customer is always right.

Posted in 21st Century Britain, Brand communications, Semiotics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A light buzz year: to infographics and beyond

I came across a link to this today while browsing the wonderful @brainpickings by Maria Popova. I know 2013 is so last year, but still – some brilliant visualisations of data on here. These examples are American, but no less interesting for that. I love the vote-weighted electoral map and the wind map in particular. Inspiration for any presentation. Or just inspiration.

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

If you’re a qual researcher – or a person generally – and you haven’t checked out Brain Pickings yet, you should. It’s probably the best thing on the Internet if you have a curious, arts and humanities-leaning mind. A gateway to a lot of interesting people being interesting – and not so much taking you off on tangents as showing you some great paths through the thicket of life. The best ones tend not to be the obvious ones. It’s not just some resource, it’s wise and has got a soul. That seems rare these days in world where we struggle to step off the hedonic treadmill (some interesting further thoughts on that also here). It isn’t afraid to talk about what really matters in life, not just the practical stuff we all have to do. And therein lies its brilliance (and therein), if you’ll excuse the Fall reference.

Technology was supposed to free us up to spend more time on the important stuff of life, not on more technology. So for those of us bored with meaningless distraction, who want to think more about a meaningful, thoughtful and fulfilled life – and God knows, even have one – here’s a good place to start.

Posted in 21st Century Britain, All Over The World, Brand communications, Media, Qual Research, Semiotics, Shore, Society | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The ship is loaded, now a voyage into the future of qual

No sooner had a couple of ships left the harbour here at Shore than a couple more have hoved into view to replace them.

Busy at the Shore

Busy at the Shore – and also blurry and pixillated. Would you believe this is a pic of Brendan Rodgers’ home town? You should, it is. Lovely place, Carnlough, Co. Antrim. Limited footballing opportunities though.

A busy summer and autumn await. Thanks to all who responded to last week’s message of availability. In no particular order, I’m going to be getting more acquainted with garden equipment, health products and meat in the coming months.

As for now, I’m looking forward to Monday’s big AQR meet-up to discuss the small matter of the future of qual research. Like a lot of agencies, Shore chipped in some dosh to help sponsor the day and I will be taking part in the session myself. It will be fascinating to see how others in the industry are seeing it. Qual in the UK is, in many senses, in rude health and has a fantastic future – but there are some strategic challenges facing qual researchers. Some senior qual practitioners are concerned our ability to continue to do great, transformative qual work is threatened, now that a new tendency to commoditise qual has been added to the age-old undervaluing of qual by people who don’t fully get it.

Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide?

Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide? I’ve always felt a bit different from the rest of you anyway.

In my view, it’s because of our main strength – we are, in a business or public sector project context, genuinely disruptive. We do things differently, we often think very differently from the people we advise. That’s because we carry in our heads, when we walk into our clients’  business and government environments, an acute awareness of how people really think and act out there, across a range of activities. It can make us sound jarring or even awkward at times – our discourse is different from the usual language of business or government.

Sometimes clients even mistake what we have to tell them for entertainment. Qual debriefs can be very engaging, we hope, but they are also often addressing fundamental issues for our clients. The shame is that the potential for a qual debrief to be taken further to change thinking within client organisations is often missed.

But as I said in my talk last September at the AQR event at Wallace Space, I do think the idea of developing a clearer and more recognised professional status for qual researchers has much to commend it. Having a recognised professional status, as I had when I worked as a solicitor, cuts out a lot of the unnecessary crap you otherwise have to deal with.

Give us some space to do our thing. We're better at it than you.

Give us some space to do our thing. We’re better at it than you.

People using an unfamiliar lawyer can rightly assume, at a base level, that she has proven herself as bright and knowledgeable enough to be accepted into the profession by senior guardians of the profession. She will have worthwhile expertise on the areas upon which she advises clients.

Having a defined area of expertise as lawyers have, non-lawyers are largely prevented from dabbling ineptly in these activities. This helps lawyers of course but it’s also for the benefit of anyone using legal services. In qual, we could do with more of that respect sometimes – and our clients would be the ones who would benefit in the long term.

They are sold short when they are offered ‘qualitative insights’ by people without substantial qualitative research training or experience.

What clients don't see - we have to write everything we're thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you

What clients don’t see – we have to write everything we’re thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you

Qual seems beguilingly simple at first – then you realise the mental gymnastics required to produce proper insight and it takes most of us a few years before we get our heads around how to consistently do that and become the finished article. That’s years of focussing solidly on qualitative thinking and insights. The difficulty of getting to that place is not, I think, always appreciated, especially when we make it look simple.

How the accreditation is done is more of an open question. I look forward to thinking through the ideas on Monday.

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The World Cup of Everything Else

http://graphics.wsj.com/documents/WORLDCUPTOEE/#/?lang=en&metrics=Most%20Twitter%20Followers

The Brazil World Cup starts tonight, if we can see any of it past the massive arse of aptly-named Brazilian frontman Hulk. I think he frequents the same gym as former star Ronaldo; that is, one that is a front for a pasty shop.

Mate, it's 2014. And I'm afraid not only did Brazil not win it in 2010, but they actually didn't win it in 1998 either. Lesson" don't rely on Wikipedia. Oh and the Ronaldo impression needs work too.

Mate, it’s 2014. And I’m afraid not only did Brazil not win it in 2010, but they actually didn’t win it in 1998 either. Less Wikipedia and more paying attention please. Oh and the Ronaldo impression? Needs work.

As a football nut, I am a little beside myself just now. Less nutty about “soccer” perhaps, the Wall Street Journal has nevertheless put its emotional detachment to good use by creating a marvellous interactive info graphic. It shows how the tournament would play out if countries competed against each other on various different demographic and geographical statistics. Have fun with it (if the link works).

A few tasters:

  • Belgium wins on Biggest Urban Population (an incredible 98 per cent of the Belgian population)
  • Japan has the Most Forest (67 per cent of total land area) of any World Cup nation
  • Iran has the highest inflation rate at 35.2 per cent (they would beat Ghana in the final).
Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea: the Sea Organ, in Zadar, Croatia. Will in roar in an unlikely Corluka screamer?

Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea: the waves makes music through this piece of seafront architecture, the Sea Organ, in Zadar, Dalmacija, home of my in-laws (and Luka Modric). Will the Adriatic roar in an unlikely Corluka screamer this summer? Or a peach from Nikica Jelavic? Probably not …

And having married into a Croatian family, and with a son called Tomislav, I wish Luka Modric and the lads the best for the tournament. Croatia didn’t, however, make it onto the smorgasbord of wastrel bets I placed on the tournament last week. I’m prepared to share what they were if I win any of them.

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Knowledge frameworks in qual: Jon Chandler’s seven pillars of wisdom (IMJR 55/5)

Simon Riley:

This from Simon Shaw’s blog, “Changing My Mind” – a wonderfully simple but comprehensive table summarising John Chandler’s “7 Pillars of Qual”. It would be great if everyone commissioning or using qual had this one-pager on their wall. My one amendment would be on the final column to ask “Are all responses equally useful” (rather than equally valid), as you could argue that all responses are equally valid if recruitment is right, it’s just that some give you more useful meaning and insight than others. But overall, the table is a really useful contribution to practical qual. I know I’ve already come back to it for reference several times.

Originally posted on changing my mind:

shutterstock_123917302 Jon Chandler’s article Seven pillars of wisdom: the idea of qualitative research made me pick up a copy of the IMJR for the first time . In a few thousand words Chandler defines and delineates seven different ‘knowledge frameworks’ within qualitative research. He articulates the underlying assumptions inherent in day-to-day quallie practice – teasing out how what we’re doing fits into what framework, what the benefits and limitations are. It’s one to ponder, ruminate. I can see it coming in useful come proposal time.

Chandler applies three comparisons to help define the frameworks:

  • Is ‘accessing data’ straightforward? Does the model assume people are self-aware, that they have easy access to their own motivations and drives?
  • Is the ‘meaning’ of the data unproblematic? Does the model assume people say what they mean and mean what they say?
  • Are all responses equally valid? Does the model assume all respondents are equally valuable…

View original 128 more words

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