Researching UX: User Research – book review written for the AQR’s In Brief magazine, January 2018

Researching UX_User Research

This book is a pick-me-up: fresh, engaging and helpful. I opened it up after a long day in the office and found myself immediately taking notes, making myself late for dinner in the process.

Its aim is to demystify design research, signposting the reader step by step through project design, setup, fieldwork, analysis and impact. With 30 years combined experience Lang and Howell are well placed to write the book on UX.  As you’d expect from authors who spend much of their time advocating on behalf of the user the prose is scannable, with subheadings and diagrams to help you along the way. Yet nothing feels dumbed down, just concise, considered.

Lang and Howell are encouraging too: the tone is collaborative. Research for them is about making the world better. The authors acknowledge upfront that if “you are unsure – read on” and that “research is a team sport”. Other credos like “successful research is about driving design decisions through engagement, not delivering documents” and “analysis starts at the beginning” are good practice for us all. In fact I found little to disagree with, other than their unbounded zeal for the transformative power of the post-it note in the analysis process (flipcharts rule, OK?).

Having commissioned UX as a client and undertaken it as an agent, I wasn’t expecting to learn so much or find so many useful tools, models and techniques I can add to my daily practice. The sections on validity and sample design in chapter 2 are elegantly worded and useful reminder for your next proposal; you can use the exercise in chapter 8 to break your analysis deadlocks; you could even use the reporting templates in chapter 9 in the deck you are writing this moment.

Indeed, whilst young researchers at the outset of their career or those who haven’t been anywhere near UX before undoubtedly have the most to gain, the learnings are so valuable that every quallie would benefit from reading it. If anything the title undersells the book.

My overriding impression is a deep sense of shared expertise. Lang and Howell have contributed to the river of qualitative knowledge in a meaningful way. I can think of no higher compliment.


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Technology, trust and market research: opinion piece written for IMPACT magazine, January 2018


Taken from “Trust in us: can relationships between businesses and individuals be improved by new technology?” – a special report in the January 2018 edition of IMPACT magazine.


Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. More fail than succeed.

The trap we fall into is extrapolating present trends, meaning we are blindsided by the revolutionary. As Mark Earls said at conference this year “There is a natural human tendency to ‘impose linearity’ when thinking about cause and effect – A leads to B.” The reality is more complex.

Think about it. The app industry is less than 10 years old. In 2017 it is an industry worth $77 billion servicing a market of 2.3 billion smartphone users, employing over 12 million people.

No-one would have been able to predict this in 2007, and for good reason. The metaphors and analogies at our disposal at the time were blunt tools, unable to carve out a vision of this future.

Or to put it another way, you can’t paint the future with the colours of the past.

So, if you are asked in 2017 to make predictions for 2027 you would be wise to explore a range of imagined futures.

  • As an industry, the landmarks by which we get our bearings are changing. AI, machine learning & big data will push us professionally. But the brain is the best algorithm. It will be for years to come.


  • The great Bitcoin experiment may fail, but that’s beside the point. The proof of concept for blockchain technologies is a pull-and-push on the status quo. Its emergence could involve many unintended consequences. As Adam Greenfield points out in his book Radical Technologies such technologies of distributed consensus may eliminate the need for an intermediary in transactions of value; smart contracts may eliminate the need for authorities to enforce agreements; and the reduced cost of enacting binding agreements mean they can be deployed in new contexts. We may soon be living in a world where your car key stops working if don’t keep up your repayments.


  • And we forget the human in this equation – with all of our limitations, fickleness and fallibility – at our peril. Look backwards again. In 2007 Bebo was the teen’s social network of choice; in 2017 the teens I researched only talked about Instagram. Facebook occupied the middle years. You’d be brave to bet against them but our platform monopolists may ebb as well as flow. Envisage a world where Facebook’s growth ambitions are limited not by a data breach or scandal, but by the fact that teens see it as something “for old people – like mum or dad…”


New technologies will challenge our ethical boundaries. Whether we’re clients, agencies or consultants our perspective needs to be clear. Ultimately this is not about individual technologies, platforms or daily commentary of whom and what.

This is about our values. What do our organisations stand for? What principles do we abide by? How do we want to be treated as individuals? How does that carry over to our participants, customers and partners? The only prediction I make is that our integrity will be challenged on a regular basis on the road to 2027. To stand a chance of making the right decisions each and every time, our people need to know what our values are – and what they are empowered to do.  

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Neuroscience and market research: which methods are best?

In the most recent IMJR Jane Leighton from Neilsen describes a 2016 study which for the first time evaluates the respective merits of neuro tools.

imjr_which-neuroscience-methods-are-best-for-market-research.pngIn a sentence:

  • EEG has the best predictive validity;
  • Facial coding isn’t worth bothering with;
  • Like traditional methods, triangulation increases explanatory power.

For anyone who has used Eyetracking, GSR, EEG or Facial Coding this is intuitive.

EEG tends to be applied by trained specialists in a lab setting and a controlled environment. The data tends not to be interpreted by non-specialists.

Facial coding – even if you accept the “science” of micro expressions (I do not) – is often applied via webcam in home. The ultimate uncontrolled setting. The data is often interpreted by generalists.

The 2016 study is a comprehensive controlled test, testing 60 ads in 20 product categories, with over 900+ neuro participants and 22,000+ survey respondents. Their dependent variable – sales outcome – is not fully elucidated. I’m assuming this relates to an uplift in purchase intent following exposure.

My view? Adding neuro methods is about intelligent triangulation:

  • In advertising pre-testing EEG has predictive validity. Long-term memory encoding is the most effective dependent variable;
  • In retail, applied in a ‘blind’ shopping trip eyetracking adds most value in understanding real shopping behaviour and evaluating the impact of instore influences;
  • I wouldn’t bother with any of the other methods.


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Indulge in a spot of online shopping on Christmas day? You’re not alone

UK shoppers spent nearly a billion pounds online on Christmas day 2017.

It’s a reminder how much things have changed.

Those of you who can remember the advent of Sunday trading or the difficulty in getting a pint of milk on Boxing Day may sigh and feel a vague nostalgia for times gone by.

If you’re under 20 you’ve probably never known a world when you couldn’t fulfill every shopping whim within seconds.

Lots of people will be enthusiastically loading music, books and games onto just unboxed devices, others redeeming their gift cards. It’s not all naked consumerism.

Others perhaps indulging in a bit of post-gifting me-time, browsing the sales by smartphone as a substitute for hitting bricks & mortar stores. Indeed, passive tracking research undertaken last year by the7stars showed smartphone usage peaks around 9pm once the main events of the day are done and we’re all settling into the main TV event of the day.

But the main thing to reflect on is that we live an increasingly secular society. In the latest British Social Attitudes survey the majority (53%) declared themselves as having “no religion”.

When your national holidays no longer align with your beliefs, and the device in your hand has trained you that delayed gratification is an outmoded concept, why wouldn’t you do a bit of sales shopping on the 25th? This is modern Britain.

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Help! A canvass bag is following me around the internet!

I am being followed around the internet by not one, but two canvass bags.

They come to the websites I browse and interrupt me, saying weird things like:

“I know you’ve been checking me out”


“You’ve got great taste”

Help! Canvass bags are chasing me around the internet!


In this situation the average person will realise they are being retargeted by a brand they’ve browsed previously. Many will shrug, some may even find it useful if there’s a promotion included.

But come on – just because you happen upon a product online it doesn’t mean it should follow you around until you relent and buy it. As a strategy it is often crass or creepy. I’m being shouted at. No ROI metric will pick up the aggregate annoyance.

For all the huge claims about machine learning, AI and personalisation the theory is oh so different from the practice.

Think for a moment about the combined human ingenuity involved: the proprietary platform, the terrabytes of analysed data the joint client-agency exertion. Then re-read the messaging. It stuns me that the execution of this clever strategy is so poor. It’s like tripping over your shoelaces at the 26 mile point of a marathon.

Ad targeting regularly leaves much to be desired. A gem from last week on Facebook Marketplace.

Facebook marketplace ad targeting

Let’s just say I’m not a DIY-er and am I less keen on Kingston upon Hull than my proximity would suggest. What on earth are the selection variables for this ad? ‘Male’ + ‘on sale nearby’ maybe? Wow.

But look on the bright side. If this is the extent of the platform monopolists‘ computing power we can rest easy knowing the singularity isn’t happening anytime soon.

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Transitions: the sweet spot for behaviour change

I moved house in the summer. A new place, a new environment, a new commute.

Old habits were broken and new ones emerged. Briefly:

  • I don’t have a recycling bin. I stopped recycling;
  • Tesco is now on my doorstep. I no longer shop at Sainsbury’s;
  • I now have to drive to the park to go for a jog. I now run less, twice a week not three times.

My attitudes haven’t changed. I still believe in recycling, still prefer Sainos to Tesco, still prefer to run every other day.

But my behaviour has changed. The transition to a new environment molded my behaviour. Environmental cues exerted a strong influence, more so than my beliefs or preferences.

I was thinking about this when Danny Kahneman introduced “the best idea I ever heard in psychology” on this week’s Freakonomics podcast. In the 1950s Kurt Lewin posited that behaviour is held in equilibrium between driving and restraining forces.

Figure 1_Driving forces and restraints in equilibrium

For change to happen the equilibrium must be upset – the theory says you must add conditions favourable to the change or reduce restraints.

But in practice, if you want to change behaviour, rather than increase driving forces (arguments, incentives and threats), you should diminish restraining forces (barriers, incentives, environmental cues). This is unintuitive:

“A lot of things can be described as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behavior, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces…”

Kahneman’s advice: to design a behaviour change intervention, the strategy can be defined with the question ‘why aren’t they doing ‘it’ already?’ not ‘how can we get them to do ‘it’?’

The tactics should focus on making it easier for people to behave the way you want. This is almost always about controlling the environment e.g. putting the healthy snacks near the till or in my example, giving me a recycling bin the day I move in.

Research – of course – has a role to play. To understand restraining factors we need to look at the situation from individual’s point of view. I insist on mapping behavioural patterns (revealed preferences, environmental cues, triggers) rather than ask/answer research in this situation.

Coming back to moving house, any transition can be seen as an opportunity if you’re looking to change behaviour. Moving home, changing job, buying from a new category – all are chinks in the armour: our habit-formed behaviour breaks down and there is a chance for change. Targeting interventions here (e.g. recycling bin, auto-enrolment to pension, offering a repeat subscription) effectively remove restraints, meaning positive forces for change prevail.

Figure 2_Remove the restraints and behaviour changes

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Identity signalling

Guiseppe Peppe_The music sounds better with you

Pic: Guiseppe Peppe

I interviewed a lot of athletes in 2017. Personal trainers, coaches, instructors, and all types of participant from elite to amateur.

The role specialist kit plays in their worlds interested me.

Many of the sports involved extreme conditions: the right kit keeps you alive. I’d assumed function would be everything. Yet listening to these people, I was surprised about the subtle role brands play. Whilst function is vital (performance, fit and comfort) over time it became clear there are other things going on. Your kit signals who you are.

An obvious one: signalling to clients (what psychologists would call the outgroup). Instructors need to project a professional image to clients and brands play a role. When you’re mountainside all you have is your body, voice and reputation – and your clothing. It plays a differentiating role. Experts don’t want to wear the same gear as the “punters” or “weekend warriors. An item from a specialist brand – with identical technical capabilities to an equivalent item from another brand with a mass-market following – makes you stand apart from the people you are instructing.

Signalling to peers (what psychologists would call the ingroup). Each sport has subtle codes. A nice quote: “if you turned up with jacket with certain logos on it there would be raised eyebrows and comments… I have nothing against (BRAND X), I just wouldn’t choose to wear it to work… Status hierarchies need to be maintained as in any profession. Being given free gear by the right brands to test and review gives you the next level of bragging rights. You can always drop the “I didn’t pay for any of this” or “…these boots? They were never brought to market” line if you’re keen to impress.

Signalling to yourself. The gear tells you something about yourself, reinforcing your identity. It’s not always conscious. One example: it took me about 45 minutes to get the guided tour of the kit room in one participant’s house. There was one item at the back he didn’t mention, so I had to ask. The baggy black Outer Layer – shiny at the elbows, saggy and not quite so waterproof 10 years on – was the first specialist item he’d bought after working in an outdoor retailer for the summer. He’d coveted it, saved up for it and bought it with his staff discount. From a brand which the older more experienced peers were wearing, it was his entry to ‘the club.’ He hadn’t worn it for years: whilst its intended purpose was practical its actual purpose was emotional. A symbol, or memento.

I have two reflections.

Firstly, all of this speaks to general human experience. A glacier or mountain may mean life or death – but is still a social environment in which people seek difference and demonstrate status. Look closely at any other specialist area – fashion, music, IT, whatever – and similar things will be going on because we’re social creatures who construct our identities in relation to the context we find ourselves in. As psychologist Tony Crabbe says “We compete for status in almost every domain of our lives.” 

Secondly, our identities are more malleable than we care to admit. Brands are reference points. We internalise them. They reinforce our sense of who we are.

We perform ourselves to ourselves.

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Ad effectiveness: Les Binet / WARC webinar

Effectiveness in the digital age was hosted by Les Binet from adam&eveDDB, part of the WARC 2017 Toolkit series.

The content was so good I’ve been mulling it over for 3 months trying to work out all the implications.

Binet uses the IPA databank to understand ad effectiveness, essentially examining how 1000+ campaigns led to measurable business results. He’s spent 10 years isolating the role of creative & media so we don’t have to.

I love all this stuff as it gives you the meta level view of what works. It both confirms and develops hunches you’ve had from many years working project by project.

There’s loads of interesting stuff to go at, but for me Binet was most compelling on strategy: isolating cause and effect and the synergistic effects of media.

There are two distinct jobs for marketing

Binet framed effectiveness around two competing marketing paradigms: reach (tell everyone) and targeting (focus your efforts).

Two ways marketing works

Reach is about brand building

  • Who: the aim is to speak to all potential buyers not just those buying right now.
  • What: “Your goal is to make people feel good about you so more likely to buy when they next see you.” Brand building creative should be emotional, entertaining, memorable
  • Why: it makes firms grow (‘builds long-term equity’). Reach is biggest predictor of ad advertising effectiveness. “Marketing is a numbers game…you need to reach as many people as possible…”
  • When: It is future oriented, an investment. It’s about building up memory structures, preparing the ground. Time horizons are long. That means if you’re selling cars you should reach even those who haven’t learnt to drive yet.
  • Sales effects: slow burn. Effects are small in the short term, but they last a long time. There is a stepped effect: each exposure increases base level of sales.

Targeting is about immediate sales activation

  • Who: give those in the market for your product right now compelling reasons to buy
  • What: You’re converting: rational persuasion, offers and a response mechanism – classic BTL DM/digital approach
  • Why: immediate sales effects. These are bigger and more immediate than those seen when brand building, but also more short term and decay quicker (e.g. 6 months)
  • When: now!
  • Sales effects: large, immediate, but more short term and quicker to decay (e.g. 6 months)

Targeting only works because of reach

  • Or to put it another way reach is what makes targeting work. You need to set them up (awareness, positivity, trust etc) before you can knock them down (offer, promotion, response mechanism).

Use the right media for the right job

Think synergistically

  • The evidence shows campaigns combining mass media and digital sales activation are more effective. Synergistic cross media effects mean the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Digital gives a “kicker effect” – boosting effectiveness.

The kicker effect of digital.png

Evaluate & prioritise your budgets (aka ROI is illusory)

  • The balance between long term building and short term sales activation should be around 60/40. Getting the time-frame for evaluation wrong means you over prioritise sales activation – and end up in a self-defeating short-term cycle of neglect. This is the illusory nature of ROI.
  • It’s about the strategy, the right job using the right medium.
    • When you’re brand building people are not particularly interested in what you have to say right now – they are busy doing other things. David Golding from adam & eve DDB talks about “creating culture through campaigns that generate fame, talk-ability and memetic power.”
    • When you’re converting you’re easing the path to purchase. Programmatic interventions online are a good example: identifying, micro-targeting and influencing people just as they are about to buy.

Binet also made great points on how the network effects of digital platforms have different rules and how millennials’ media choices are slightly different.

But it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. Go listen yourself.

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5 takeaways from the MRS Conference

Another year, another MRS conference. Here’s five takeaways from the sessions I attended on the second day.

Imagining multiple futures

If the past 12 months have taught us anything it is that making predictions is difficult – or even foolish.

In his session Memories of the Future Mark Earls focused on the role of research in helping clients navigate strategic decisions. There is a natural human tendency to ‘impose linearity’ when thinking about cause and effect – A leads to B. Reality is more complex.

In his view our role is not to predict one future but several. We shouldn’t be making one precise ‘pass/fail’ prediction but mapping a range of possible alternatives, and using these to prompt open discussions with our clients. He used ‘the futures cone’ (the rather wonderful diagram below) to bring this thinking to life:

The futures cone

Ogilvy Labs was run on a shoestring

In the same session Nicole Yershon described her experiences setting up and running Ogilvy Labs (the R&D unit of Ogilvy group). Yershon radiates entrepreneurial zeal and had lots of tips about creating a new culture of innovation within a corporation of 1800 people. She had to be creative in generating revenue to fund the non fee-earning venture when it started in 2007. Hard to imagine now, but this was what kick-started Rory Sutherland’s paid public speaking engagements. It was also the genesis of his book The Wiki Man (a collection of his Campaign and Spectator columns) – conferences pay more if the speaker has a book. She also described the lab’s KPIs – which focussed on more than revenue:

  • Revenue (developing fee earning work over time)
  • Reputation
  • Retention (engaging work for colleagues)
  • Recruitment of new diverse talent (not the usual Oxbridge route in)
  • Relationships
  • Responsibility (giving back/paying forward)

Video selfies are a thing (but watch out for half naked participants)

The session on behaviour change Nudge or hint? Is behaviour change going far enough? had a couple of great new methods. Kindling Partner John Cohen devised an ingenious method of capturing split-second recycling decisions. Evidence showed young people in London recycle less than other age groups, partly because of the hassle, partly because of the confusion over what goes in what bin. In the week leading up to a paired in-home depth participants recorded daily video selfies at the moment of recycling/not recycling. The associated video showed moments of real honesty (and a couple of half-naked participants). The takeout: the method eased the path to telling the truth and allowed participants a way to map their own behaviour in a non-judgemental manner. This unlocked the insight which was the bedrock of the behaviour change campaign.

Using dashcams for ethnography and confronting undesirable behaviour

Another behaviour change brief – this time on using mobiles whilst driving – another ingenious method. BAMM and the Department for Transport used dashcams to record driving behaviour. Participants were recruited on the basis of a project looking at driving habits; this passive observation for 2 weeks exposed all sorts of shall we say… sub-optimal habits. The really brave bit was bringing the drivers together, showing them their behaviour in a group workshop, before getting them to co-create an intervention which addressed both unconscious behaviours (touching my phone without thinking) as well as undermining conscious justifications (I have to pick up, it’s my son’s nursery).

Quick framework: lapsed, dominant and emergent trends

Nick Gadsby’s whilstlestop tour of semiotics was too rich to summarise, but included an off-the-shelf analysis tool: classifying the lapsed, dominant and emergent trends relevant to a topic. His example related to luxury: contemporary visions of luxury living used to be all about excess and bling. These have now shifted and the aspirational living space is now sparse, open, with few things or people in it. A useful prompt for analysis, whatever the category.



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The challenges of media research


Introduction to my chapter on Media Research in the Market Research and Insight Yearbook, published by Kogan Page last year. 

Media owners use research to prove that their media channels work and are good value to their customers, the advertisers. Advertisers rely on research to show that advertising has worked both creatively and in terms of media choice. Both need to understand how people use media and receive messages. This sets the challenge for media research. It must overcome two issues in order to be useful.

First, there are many media channels and people are exposed to many of them either simultaneously (surfing social media on their phone while watching TV) or over time (the newspaper in the morning, the radio in the car, the letter on the doormat when they come home). Research needs to attribute effects correctly to each channel and observe when combined effects are stronger.

Second, people are prone to misattributing the role of advertising in their lives. Primarily they forget or dismiss most of what they are exposed to. What they do recall and remember they often wrongly attribute to what they assume are more dominant media channels. TV often gets the credit that press, posters, online and direct mail in part deserve[1].

The growth of both ‘traditional’ media (more TV channels, DAB radio, free papers) and ‘new’ media (news brands online, social media, online advertising, etc.) has created ever greater fragmentation. This only makes the task of market research harder. While some new media have metrics ‘baked-in’ such as the measure of clicks, views, likes, tweets etc., this can create a misattribution of its own where the easy to measure, but less effective, is favoured over the hard-to-measure but more effective[2].

New Techniques for Media Research

Media research will always rely in part on people’s recall of advertising. This remains a quick and cheap way of roughly measuring success. However, in recent years, approaches based on academic advances in neuroscience and Behavioural Economics have both helped move beyond this reliance on recall, and can help solve the problems of misattribution.

Techniques adopted from neuroscience and biometrics mean we can now say with confidence which messages are likely to form lasting memories and go on to influence future behaviour. Behavioural Economics has inspired experiments which isolate the underlying influences on behaviour, providing clear evidence of what participants are unable to attribute or struggle to recall. This methodological precision is made possible by advances in recording technologies that make ethnography, self-ethnography and observervation cheaper and less intrusive.

Case Studies

The two case studies outlined in this chapter both use innovations in methodology driven by neuroscience and Behavioural Economics to solve the problem of advertising misattribution – a core issue for advertising mail. The cases describe how Trinity McQueen worked with Royal Mail MarketReach (the part of Royal Mail that supports advertisers’ use of mail) to understand how mail, leaflets and catalogues work as advertising media.

The first case study shows how we used CCTV & ethnography to evidence what actually happens to mail in the home: where it goes, how long it lives and what it is used for. We have highlighted several learnings for qualitative research design, particularly when leveraging technology.

The second case study shows how we combined a controlled experiment and neuroscience to evidence the impact of the medium on the message. The quality of paper shouldn’t affect the desire to read something, but it does. We have highlighted several learnings for behavioural research design.


[1] The TV advertising industry body thinkbox commissioned econometric modelling to examine the direct and indirect effects of different media:

[1] Les Binet and Sarah Carter provide a detailed analysis of the issues in the WARC blog entitled Attribution Fraud:

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