Market research lessons from cycling


The cyclist journeys home

The story begins with a traveler cycling home from work. All the way, the cyclist kept being passed by other cyclists, and couldn’t help but wonder, “I’m exerting so much effort, but I keep getting passed! I know I’m slower than most, but this is starting to feel silly.” The cyclist then did a quick analysis of the situation: she was hauling a laptop, change of clothes, two full water bottles, extra shoes, and bike tools. “Ah, that’s why. I’m hauling extra weight, and it’s slowing me down.” And she pedaled on.

Analogy 1: when extra weight slows us down

How often have we looked at our questionnaires, compared to others’ questionnaires, and wondered why our response rates were dropping? Have we stepped back and looked at what kind of “extra weight” we’re including in our questionnaires that’s causing us to exert extra effort just to keep a consistent low response rate going? Sometimes, in the case of some trackers, the claim is made that the extra questions are necessary for trending purposes. But when was the last time you met with your stakeholders and really determined what’s being used and what isn’t? The same applies to reports: is your report concise, giving the information needed to help the client make decisions, or does it go on and on with various cuts of data that ultimately don’t mean much to anyone?

Fixing the flat

After the third rest, the cyclist still felt like something was wrong about the level of effort being exerted for the speed being achieved. Suddenly, she realized, “When was the last time I checked the tires?” Knowing some hills were coming that would call for some serious work, and already feeling a bit exhausted, she stopped and found that the tires were only about half-full. “Well, that definitely explains a lot!” she thought, and hopped off to grab the bike pump she kept handy for such purposes.

She was a bit wary of doing anything to the tires since she hadn’t had a lot of success with this bike pump in the past. But she also knew the better the tire inflation, the less work she’d need to be exerting to climb those upcoming hills. She uncapped the valve on the front tire, attached the bike pump, and…. nothing.

She remembered a friend teaching her that this type of tube had a valve that required an extra step in order to get the bike pump to work. She took that extra step, attached the pump, and instead of adding air to the tire, all the air went out. Now, the tire was completely flat. Undeterred, she kept trying. Repeatedly, she’d lock the pump onto the tire, only to find that no air would make it into the tire.

A few kind cyclists offered to help, but each time they did, she thought, “This is easy enough, I’m almost there,” and she politely declined their offers of assistance.

Analogy 2: working in a vacuum

How often do we approach a project thinking, “I figured out the problem! It’s an easy fix!” This doesn’t just apply to market research, but any project in any field. Something just isn’t working quite right in the project, we identify the issue, and figure we know enough to apply the correct solution. While the solution we’re applying is correct, our lack of experience indicates we don’t actually know how to apply the solution effectively or efficiently, so we end up making matters worse. Colleagues might offer assistance, but we become too proud to accept the help, thinking, “Really, how hard can this be?” We end up wasting time, effort, and resources, and ultimately find ourselves stuck in a worse spot than we started.

While it might be easy to apply this analogy to the DIY questionnaire design world, I think it happens even with those of us who have been in the professional for awhile. I mean, how hard could it really be to convert that questionnaire to be device-agnostic?

The tech that wasn’t used…

45 minutes into the debacle of fixing the now-completely-flat tire, our cyclist friend was frustrated, tired, and late getting home. Eventually, she called her family to come pick her up from a nearby parking lot. She figured her bike pump was worthless, since no matter how she tried, it wouldn’t lock on correctly onto the bike tube. She had her smartphone handy, and had even used it to look up a video on how to properly inflate a bike tire, so she figured she had done all she could. Finally, while waiting for her family to come rescue her, she decided to look up how to use the bike pump. (Well, okay, she looked up the bike pump for reviews to see if anyone else loathed it as much as she did at that point, and ended up coming across a tutorial on how to use it first.)

You guessed it. She’d been using the bike pump wrong the entire time. Turns out the bike pump could be adjusted for the two types of valves that were common for bike tires. Once adjusted for the valve on her bike, the tire inflated in a matter of seconds.

Just in time for her family to drive up to get her.

Analogy 3: use the tech we have in the right way

This was the thing that got me thinking about the parallels to market research the most. We have all sorts of new technologies that are being explored for application to the market research industry. Virtual and augmented reality; augmenting traditional questionnaires with telemetry; online focus groups; etc. But how many of those in the industry are tossing aside the various new technologies because they didn’t work as expected? There’s the questionnaire that was “adapted” to be mobile-friendly (but still kept the long scales, open-ended questions, and stayed 20+ minutes long), but participants on mobile devices kept dropping out. “So much for that idea.” Or the telemetry information that just isn’t quite as accurate as desired, so the questionnaire keeps the questions that should have been replaced with the telemetry data, “just in case.” Is it possible we’re just using the technology wrong? Could we be casting aside the new market research approaches, saying they don’t work, when in reality, we didn’t give them a real chance?

And what about having technology at our disposal that we just aren’t even willing to use? That smartphone was there the whole time; there was no impediment to my looking up how to use the bike pump. I just thought (again) I knew what I was doing, so I didn’t bother looking up the directions to be sure I was doing things correctly the first – or even fifteenth – time. At any point, I could have stopped applying the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result), done a quick internet search to check if I was using that bike pump correctly or not, and been back on the road in a matter of minutes. What technologies or methodologies are out there that could be saving us time and effort that we aren’t using, even though they’re easily accessible?

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