Market Research and Memory: How to Get Around Human Error

Dec 15, 2016

Market research has made huge strides over the past few years, becoming more sophisticated in methods of data collection, study execution, and how we apply our findings. But at its core, research is still fundamentally about asking consumers questions and hoping they remember enough to provide quality responses. And though we’d like to believe that our memories are infallible databases of accurate, true-to-life snapshots that never fade or alter, researchers know better than anyone that is not always the case. Recognition, retention, and recall are the brain functions on which market research most often relies, and yet they are the aspects of memory most prone to distortion—and thus most likely to induce bias. So how can researchers find a way around our flawed consciousness?

According to the research of Martin Simmons and Henry Durant, as it appears in the International Journal of Market Research, researchers have three choices when it comes to handling the impact of memory: elimination, reduction, or stimulation. Essentially, you have the options to eliminate the need for memory by being in the moment; reduce the need for memory by making respondents less reliant on it; or stimulate respondents’ memory through strategic research design and language. Below we offer a few solutions that each fit within one of these approaches, to help you uncover richer, more accurate consumer insights.

Elimination – Behavioral Data & Shop-Alongs

Though the idea of eliminating memory from market research may feel like a far-fetched dream, there are both older and newer methods for getting the insights you need without asking anyone to remember anything. The first and more recent approach comes in the form of behavioral data, passively collected through user action on connected devices. Every interaction—be it a purchase, a click, or a reaction—reveals an aspect of a consumer’s digital behavior that adds more granularity to their purchase habits, all without directly asking them to recall those patterns. Additionally, the tried-and-true method of joining a study participant on their shopping journey, either through mobile or in person, is a great way to observe and investigate their consumer habits in real time. Unfiltered access to how shoppers truly walk and assess the aisles is hard to come by in more memory-reliant forms of research. But both of these methods offer instantaneous insights, entirely bypassing the bias of memory.

Reduction – Mobile Video Uploads & Agile IHUTs

Reducing a research respondent’s reliance on memory through continuous feedback activities is a great way to ensure reliability in your results. One such method of feedback is through mobile video uploads, which can be incorporated into a variety of research designs. Mobile video can collect reflective feedback, record shopping activities, or even be used in an extended diary study. Videos make for richer, more complete insights captured in the respondent’s “natural environment,” and allow respondents to answer questions as they come, reducing the time in which memory can interfere. Another approach with similar effect is an Agile In-Home Usage TrialTM (IHUT). This form of qualitative research allows respondents to offer continuous feedback, in writing or video, as they actually use the product. This can result in closer to instantaneous reactions full of uncensored thought and commentary, but follow-ups and probing may require a bit of memory-reliant feedback as well.

Stimulation – Qualitative and Quantitative Research

When done correctly, almost any form of quantitative and qualitative research can stimulate the memory in a desired direction, but researchers must be careful to avoid suggestibility in their techniques. Subtle cues like overly descriptive language and leading questions can unconsciously alter how people remember an event, so try to keep your questionnaire or discussion guide as neutral as possible. For example, instead of asking “What problems did you experience while dining with us?” you could try, “Describe your latest dining experience with us.” And when probing, be sure to follow the respondent’s lead: employ language they’ve already used instead of supplying your own. For more help navigating the subjectivity of  qualitative investigations, check out this article on the do’s and don’ts of effective discussion guide writing.

Just like in our everyday lives, memory can play an equally vital and misguiding force in market research. Recognizing where and when you can reduce its interference and encourage its strengths will help you design effective research that achieves more actionable, unbiased consumer insights. And to learn more about best practices when conducting mobile research, check out the infographic below.

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