Stop making sense

Editor's note: Susan Fader is qualitative researcher, strategist and moderator at FaderFocus, a New York research firm.

A car stuck in the mud – wheels spinning, going nowhere – is how many of us have felt at some point when confronted with a business challenge. We are stuck because we don’t know how to reframe the situation to get us moving forward. In many market research challenges, where a round of research has not uncovered the needed insights, we revert to the often-quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While the techniques or research provider may change in the subsequent rounds, in most cases the same baseline assumptions are kept.

But what if these baseline assumptions are wrong? You may stay stuck in the mud, spinning your wheels. If you’re looking to generate new perspectives, try some counterintuitive thinking.

Counterintuitive thinking and behavioral economics share some common roots. Behavioral economics work has shown that people make irrational decisions and/or behave the opposite of what you might think. Counterintuitive thinking is about injecting some of that irrationality, something that might not appear logical, into your research design. Counterintuitive thinking can reframe the strategic challenge and enable you to think differently so you have an approach that leads to more meaningful results.

Before discussing specific marketing research counterintuitive thinking approaches, let me share examples of how counterintuitive thinking can impact marketing and positioning decisions.

Is five out of five stars the best rating? While for some things like your vacation hotel you may want a rating of 5/5 stars, for many consumer products the sweet spot is actually a 4.2-4.5 stars. A study by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center that used 22 product categories encompassing over 100,000 SKUs across multiple e-commerce platforms found that most consumers feel that perfect user reviews are too good to be true. About 80% of consumers in these product categories actually search out negative reviews because the negative reviews are seen as a reassurance tool, helping to establish trust in the other ratings and boost their authenticity. In many cases, the negative feedback is not even relevant to them, e.g., “didn’t like the color blue” or “took three days to arrive.”

Are your most reliable customers your best customers? Are they the ones who are going to generate the most income? Credit card users who pay their bills in full each month may feel it is counterintuitive for credit card companies to send preapproved card applications to people who just declared bankruptcy and don’t have money to pay their bills. That doesn’t seem to make sense! But they don’t generally have money to pay for things now, so they have to charge purchases and when the bill comes, they can’t pay in full so they do partial payments and thus pay growing amounts of interest. 

Without context, are you solving the problem? You have to make sure you identify the right problem and frame it within the right context. Instant cake mixes were developed to solve what was perceived to be housewives’ (yes, this was in ancient historical times, when the main target was housewives) complaints about not having the time to whip up a cake from scratch. When the mixes were first put on the market you just needed to add water to the contents. Sales were terrible. But they skyrocketed when the mixes were reformulated with the new requirements of adding an egg and oil in addition to the water. Why did that make such a difference and wasn’t it counterintuitive to what the women were saying? Well, what frustrated women about baking from scratch was the time it took and the mess it made. They loved creating something homemade rather than store-bought and the near-effortless version of the cake mixes took that satisfaction away. Eggs and oil were things that almost every housewife always had in their larders and adding the steps of cracking an egg and measuring out some oil allowed the women to feel like they contributed more to the process and that the resulting cake was truly homemade.

Counterintuitive thinking – use an outsider approach in design

When designing a research project, experience obviously matters but if there’s a project where you are stuck or want to generate some innovative ideas, the Einstellung Effect says it might be useful to bring in someone who’s unfamiliar with your situation. The Einstellung Effect refers to a person’s predisposition to solve a problem in a specific manner, even though better or more appropriate methods exist. David Epstein, in his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” uses trench-digging to illustrate this: “Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

A specialist may dig a deep trench and only employ methods they’re familiar with and construct hypotheses within the confines of their specific expertise and POV. A generalist – the outsider – may have a wide breadth of knowledge and experience, allowing them to pull from many different sources to find solutions in experiences across a broader range of options.

The outsider approach can be integrated in three ways into market research.

Complete outsider. For a study on meat, for example, consider having a vegan design it. Because a vegan has no personal experience eating meat, they will bring different perspectives and questions than a meat-eater. The vegan will also probe differently. In conversations, the research participants, who are aware that the moderator has never eaten a hamburger, will tend to explain things in detail that they might just assume a meat-eater would know. Better yet, divide the moderation between a vegan and meat-eater and you will get even more insights.

Kind of an outsider. Sometimes when you do research you have to break through the defensive barriers of the people you are talking to. In a study with white evangelical Christians that I worked on, the objective was to identify ways that they might, at a minimum, not be against passing state laws making it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the area of housing and jobs. (At the time it was legal in more than 30 states to evict someone from a rental and fire them from their job if they were gay.) When talking about beliefs and ways to rationalize a point of view, it is not unusual for the conversation with white evangelical Christians to begin with sourcing and quoting the Bible as a first line of defense. I am not an evangelical Christian but I did grow up in a religious home and I know my Bible. So after a bit of back and forth where I established that I respected religion and I knew my Bible, we were able to get down to having honest, open discussions because while what we were talking about was to them a very controversial issue, they knew I shared common foundational knowledge and experiences and so was not judging them or trying to make them look bad.

Obvious outsider. For another project, I was called in at the last minute to take over the moderation of in-person focus groups with African American women to identify new product ideas for their haircare needs. I’m not African American and while I had prior experiences in haircare and beauty products, they were more geared toward white consumers. As part of the introduction the women were told to bring in all the haircare products they used and do a show-and-tell. Being the white lady in the room, who had never seen many of these products before or even known of their existence, the women took pity on me and went into extensive detail about each of them, how they used them and what they would do to make them better. The client was thrilled. Because the women assumed I knew nothing, they felt they couldn’t imply anything and the detail they provided identified many new product opportunities. When the women had done the show-and-tell for the insider – the African American moderator – they had not gone into detail because the show-and-tell had just been meant to be a quick ice-breaker and it was obvious to all what the products were and why they were used so there was no need for the details to be explained.

Counterintuitive thinking — unconventional purchase demographics

Counterintuitive thinking says that there are times you need to step away from focusing on your traditional demographics. Consider:

People who no longer need your product or service. I did a study for a well-known jewelry company on engagement rings. Who did I talk to? Nope – I didn’t talk to people who were getting married and had bought engagement rings. I spoke to people who had broken their engagements and now had rings they no longer needed and could not return. People who are getting married are generally in la-la land and are in a very different frame of mind and emotional state from those who are raw and hurt from a broken engagement. The broken-engagement people were much more introspective and honest about sharing positives and negatives about their engagement in general and their engagement ring shopping experience. 

People who are angry. Bill Gates nailed it when he said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Your angry customers are upset because of something you did or didn’t do but they still need your products or services. Generally, the rule is to not recruit people who are overly negative or angry and if one makes their way into research, you let them vent for a couple of moments and then move on. With counterintuitive thinking you are deliberately recruiting people who are angry at you. WARNING: This type of study should only be undertaken by a highly experienced moderator who can handle a very opinionated and verbose crowd. Not an easy task.

Competitor loyalists. Here, the focus is on your competition, not you. When doing research with competitor loyalists, counterintuitive thinking emphasizes that you resist the urge to get them to talk about you. When setting this up and when observing this research, be in the frame of mind that you are the competition and you are listening to what your customers (who are really competitive customers) are saying about their relationship with your competitor (but you are listening as if you are the competition). It’s fine if they start talking about you organically but know that they may not. Focus instead on the opportunities that listening to these loyalists can offer you.

Counterintuitive thinking - narrative economics, storytelling as input

Counterintuitive thinking is about focusing on stories as input, not as output. Robert J. Shiller, the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics and the father of narrative economics, believes that stories should be used as input not as output. Most market researchers focus on using stories as output, as part of the deliverable function of distilling and sharing what was learned during the research process. If research participants are asked to share stories, a primary gauge of the story’s value is whether it can be featured in the reporting to help sell a message. The focus is on creating or selecting stories from research based on what will best convey the research insights and many of those stories are consciously curated to convey specific messages.

Counterintuitive thinking says to focus on stories as input and recognize that stories can be many things. As Shiller says, a story “may be a song, joke, theory, explanation or plan that has emotional resonance and that can easily be conveyed in casual conversation…Narrative is a story or representation used to give an explanatory or justification account of a society.”

Also, very importantly, I believe that narrative economics puts a different spin on how behavioral economics should be viewed. Classical economics says that people make rational decisions; behavioral economics says that people make irrational decisions. Narrative economics says people can be making decisions that are rational to them but appear to be irrational to the outsider. Therefore I believe that behavioral economics should be viewed as the outsider’s – the market researcher’s – perspective/judgement on whether the person being studied is making a rational choice or decision. Narrative economics should be viewed as the insider’s – the person being studied – perspective of why the choice or decision may be rational to them.

Counterintuitive thinking – backstories – it’s not about what you know, it’s about what they think

When designing and fielding research one of the things we always wrestle with is too much stuff to fit into a limited amount of time. It’s not unusual to hear, “Hey, we already know that. We don’t need to ask that again.” So it would seem counterintuitive to spend precious time on letting research participants share information that you already have reams and reams of data on.

But hey, counterintuitive thinking is about resetting baseline assumptions. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what the people you are talking with want to share information about. Backstories provide context by allowing people we want to hear from to frame the narrative and decide the context. 

For example, I did a study with heavy users of fabric softener. The client wanted to jump right in and ask them questions about fabric softener. I pushed back. I wanted the research participants to do some self-diagnostic ethnography at home – to self-observe their laundry habits and then share three things they like and three things they didn’t like about laundry as part of the introduction. We had them do that in a three-dimensional collage. (See my Quirk’s article on 3D collages for more details: Guess what? A number of these hardcore fabric softener users did not even mention fabric softener in their stories. A tremendous insight, one we would have missed had we not moved our baseline assumption starting point.

Counterintuitive thinking – more than collecting data

Just as the previous fabric softener example showed, pre-work/homework should be designed as a self-diagnostic ethnography tool that helps the research participants get insight into their own behavior and helps them formulate ideas and perspectives about things that may generally be subconscious/automatic behavior. Having research participants self-report in the form of stories identifies how they see and interact with the world. The words they use, where they start their stories and what they leave out are so important.

Inject some fun 

So, reexamine your baseline assumptions, inject some fun and integrate counterintuitive thinking when you want to get out of that rut and move forward with your research insights. Sometimes the best path to take is the least obvious one.