Why we need to make research harder to understand

A recent article by BBH head John Harrison called on advertising to become ‘harder to understand’. Harrison laments how, in our content-addled world, communication has become regarded as just another ‘user experience’ to optimise. Advertising best practice is to relentlessly simplify the message for the audience, creating a frictionless media experience through which ideas are seamlessly served up and consumed.

The problem, Harrison points out, is that it’s difficult to care about these slick, perfectly honed communications. He believes people are more likely to be influenced by advertising that challenges them to think; that invites them to join the dots and figure out the message themselves.

The research industry has also witnessed a ‘UX-ification’. There is pressure on researchers to become as frictionless as possible within organisations: to validate and test rather than question underlying strategic assumptions.

And this extends to how we communicate our insights and recommendations. The relentless focus on making research pragmatic and ‘to the point’ means we increasingly smooth over our workings; the messy research process is edited out of the client user experience in favour of simple, clear conclusions.

But like anodyne advertising, research audiences can be left cold too. Our experience is that polished presentations only take you so far. The audience may understand and agree with your conclusions, but that doesn’t mean they feel invested or have the appetite to act.

Over the last few years we’ve noticed a counter trend: clients showing appetite to engage with primary research. Whether this is by actively joining us in the field or immersing in raw video content, there is a clear desire to become part of the pattern recognition process.

When people engage with primary research the experience feels fundamentally different to being presented with static text or images. It puts clients on an equal footing with researchers. We can still make truth claims and guide client interpretation, but as our process becomes more transparent we become more accountable to the data. This not only creates more engagement, it can result in better insights.

Participation also creates a different sense of ownership for clients, resulting in greater impact. It has been well documented how Snapchat’s user interface is ‘deliberately confusing’, partly because it excludes those (older people) who don’t get it. Similarly, mastering complex research data provides collaborators with a sense of shared purpose and belief, a feeling alien to those who were not part of the process.

It is in this sense that we need to make research harder to understand. Not because simplicity is the wrong objective to pursue. But because it is only virtuous in the right hands.

//Tom Hoy