4 Noble Truths of Research

With the overwhelming number of methodological devices used to uncover insights, it’s easy to become lost in thinking about how and when to use them.  Not to mention why. This is even more true for our clients, who have neither the time nor the inclination to dig into the subtleties of how we do what we do.  What this means to practitioners of design or market research is breaking out the vast number of options into 4 simple themes.

Study and Learn

This is due diligence work.  It can be used to prep before doing more involved, primary research or once a campaign, product, etc. has been launched.  Any number of these processes can be used, depending on the scope of work, but they generally lack direct interaction with customers.  That being said, they are very helpful in understanding what you see when doing primary research.

Secondary Research

  • What it is: Review of published articles, papers, websites, books and any other documents to develop an informed view of a topic before digging in first-hand
  • Why we do it: This grounds first-hand research and provides background to stakeholders


  • What it is: Develop fictional, archetypal character profiles based on the behavior, life-styles, and cultural norms of real people
  • Why we do it: This brings the customers to life and fleshes out segments in a way that communicates the values, needs, and behavior of various target groups


  • What it is: Written scenarios describing the ways social and cultural norms and trends may shape customer behavior and reactions to a concept, company, or message
  • Why we do it: Predicting reactions to a concept and changes that might result from it helps the client understand possible outcomes and develop a long-term approach to their brand message

Historical Analysis

  • What it is: Developing a rich understanding of how an industry, market, segment, population, or practice have changed through time
  • Why we do it: This helps identify messaging cycles and consumer trends over time – emerging patterns can be used to uncover symbolic norms and project patterns of future behavior

Message Failure Cataloging

  • What it is: Brainstorm and list all the things that might go wrong in a branding effort, from messaging to strategy
  • Why we do it: This helps establish what components of a branding effort will contribute to successfully messaging to customers

Task (Cognitive) Analysis

  • What it is: Catalog all the touch points a brand has with a customer, leading from sensory input and reactions, to decisions and impressions, to the point of taking action
  • Why we do it: This helps determine what “sticks” with regard to informational and emotional needs, preventing a breakdown in the messaging cycle

Affinity Diagramming

  • What it is: Developing a map or design and messaging elements according to their various relationships (e.g. similarity, function, language, etc.)
  • Why we do it: This shows the connections between concepts, issues, and perceptual categories

Cross-Cultural Analysis

  • What it is: Use of published material and first-hand information to determine similarities and differences of meaning between cultural, sub-cultural, and community groups
  • Why we do it: This helps a team develop a complete understanding of the different cultural factors that will need to be addressed in various parts of the world, or even the community

Visual Archaeology

  • What it is: Using artifacts to document patterns of meaning as it is demonstrated in music, photographs, buildings, magazines, etc.
  • Why we do it: This gives a rich sensory explanation or societal and cultural norms that can be incorporated into a branding effort


This is where you find unmet needs, subtleties of behavior, patterns of consumption and all of that information that leads to breakthrough innovation and insights.  These are the most time intensive processes, but are the most powerful for understanding the right questions to ask and the right solutions to provide.

Proxemics (spatial analysis)

  • What it is:  Documenting how space and environments are used and understood in the cultural and psychological contexts
  • Why we do it: This technique is good for getting at what different groups associate with places – what does a dark room signify, what does the card section in a drugstore mean, what does the arrangement of furniture in a home signify?

Cultural Mapping

  • What it is: This is the tracking of how people and objects move through space over time
  • Why we do it: This process helps define high traffic areas and the impact images, obstacles, etc. shape spatial behavior

Material Culture Analysis

  • What it is: Look for and documents things in people’s lives, how those things derive meaning, and how they reflect the culture to which the owner belongs
  • Why we do it: It provides information about iconic imagery for a group, establishes what things are most important to them, and how they reflect meaning in daily life

Contemporary Archaeology

  • What it is: Examining evidence of use patters, wear patterns, placement, fabrications, and the organization of things
  • Why we do it: Like material culture analysis, this uncovers how artifacts and the environment fit into the lives of the customer, demonstrating values, beliefs, life-ways, habits, and the propensity for creativity

Social Network Mapping

  • What it is: Categorize the various relationships and communities of interaction within a segment and map their interactions
  • Why we do it: This is a excellent way to understand the different roles people take on at different times and the various relationship types with a group


  • What it is: Spend time with people (sometimes days or weeks), using participant observation to better understand the interactions, routines, cultural beliefs, and contexts of their daily lives
  • Why we do it: This is an extremely powerful tool for getting at the complexities of beliefs and worldview, finding connections and shared meaning so as to tailor subtle but extremely powerful brand messages

Rapid Ethnography

  • What it is: Spend as much time as possible engaged in participant observation related to a particular topic or group – a more streamlined version of full-blown ethnography
  • Why we do it: This is a great way to get a first-hand understanding of the habits, beliefs, rituals, and meanings people assign to a topic.  It is a good way to find associated patterns of shared meaning

Lexical Analysis

  • What it is: Cataloging and categorizing the specific words used in a conversation
  • Why we do it: This method documents the subtle differences people assign to different words, providing a more engaging, effective brand message

Observational Analysis

  • What it is: Similar to ethnography, but interaction between the researcher and the participants is removed – pure observation
  • Why we do it: This helps provide an understanding of what people actually do in context rather than them telling you.  This process may find it’s way into other methodologies

Guided Tours

  • What it is: Have participants provide a guided tour, showing the researcher what is happening, what it means, and how it impacts their lives
  • Why we do it: This helps people recall important information they may not normally be aware of and establishes a process of individual recall

Personal Inventory

  • What it is: Document those thing people say are important to them, having them explain what those things mean – this can be anything from an old picture to a favorite pair of socks
  • Why we do it: This helps uncover perceptions, emotional ties, values, and shared meaning, as well as activities and processes of use.

Narrative Analysis

  • What it is: Using story telling and narratives to uncover symbolic associations and “shared” memories people have about events, places, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This is a good tool for determining how people construct memories and assign importance to events, people, and things

Photo Analysis

  • What it is: This is a process using a planned shooting exercise where photos are taken of specific activities, groups, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This documents what meanings people assign to the subjects they are shooting, uncovering patterns of behavior, perceptions, worldview, subconscious beliefs, and inspirations


Once Exploration is done, this is the phase that should follow – it is the creative stage, where you have assumptions and hypotheses to work from.  These methods push to understand individual motivations and perceptions (not necessarily reality, but what people believe).  These are also good tools to use when you already have something tangible to work with, like product concepts or messaging campaigns.

Collage Building

  • What it is: Participants build a collage from images they provide or the researcher provides and arranges them to represent something meaningful and significant to a question
  • Why we do it: This provides visual association with abstract or complex issues, demonstrating perceptions, worldview, and  symbolic and iconic messages

Draw It

  • What it is: Participants express a belief, experience, or concept by drawing or painting it
  • Why we do it: This provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting at people’s thought, beliefs, and subconscious associations

Act It

  • What it is: Participant role-play in a scripted or adlib scenario, acting out what they believe about an issue or how they believe the world works
  • Why we do it: Like drawing, this provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting people to express their thought, beliefs, and actions

Outlier Interviews

  • What it is: Identify and interview people who represent the far ends of the spectrum of knowledge or interest in the
  • Why we do it: Talking with “outliers” highlights key issues that typical participants may overlook – they are often the most ardent critics and cheerleaders

Conceptual Landscaping

  • What it is: Map or diagram complex, abstract social and cultural concepts, constructs, or activities
  • Why we do it: This is helpful in understanding how people conceptualize ideas in relation to each other

Card Sort

  • What it is: List images or words on separate cards and have people organize them in a way that holds meaning for them, constructing visual grouping of associated meaning
  • Why we do it: This helps expose the mental models, hierarchies, priorities and connections participants have as they relate to a topic

Semiotic Analysis

  • What it is: Examine how signs and symbols are used to construct meaning and how they are shared – it can be done using word/concept association, image associations, or color associations
  • Why we do it: This uncovers the perceptions customers have of their world and what messages have the most profound impact on them

Focus Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals from a target area in a controlled group setting to ask a series of targeted questions
  • Why we do it: It can be used to get at a rich amount of shared beliefs, perceptions, actions

Unfocused Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals in a workshop or open discussion forum where they have access to a wide range of creative things to stimulate interaction and creation
  • Why we do it: This encourages a dynamic, creative space where ideas can be shared freely as inhibitions are lowered


  • What it is: Develop and ask a series of targeted questions, generally in a macro-sampling
  • Why we do it: This process is a quick, efficient way to get at large samples of people when understanding context and subtle variation in meaning are not a driving factor

Photographic and Video Journals

  • What it is: Participants keep a written journal along with either a photographic or video diary of their beliefs, reactions, impressions, etc. as they relate to a specific issue, thing, topic
  • Why we do it: This is a content-rich, highly creative method that can be used over a wide range time to uncover emotionally charged areas of interest


This is the nuts and bolts phase, when the creation phase has effectively come to a close and it’s time to make sure all the details are in place. This stage is crucial to a solid execution.  It also identifies any pieces of the puzzle that may have been overlooked.  It is important to note that some of these methods (e.g. empathy testing) can also be done at the outset of a project, before the Explore phase.

Experience Prototyping

  • What it is: Rapidly prototype a concept and elicit input from participants in the design process
  • Why we do it: This process is efficient and a good way of involving customers directly into the design process, providing ideas and values they consider important

Scenario Testing

  • What it is: Develop a series of possible future, long-term scenarios reflecting the client’s changing brand promise and get reactions from participants
  • Why we do it: This is good for gauging consumer tolerance for change and determining possible risks

On-site Usability

  • What it is: Testing the ability of a consumer to use an interface, be it package design or an online application
  • Why we do it: This identifies any system and design problems that may cause consumers discomfort

Modeling and Concept Testing

  • What it is: Using models and fully developed representations of branding materials and spaces where they will be used (e.g. mock retail spaces) with clients, customers and the internal team
  • Why we do it: This process allows the client to respond to any issues and unmet needs prior to a full-blown launch


  • What it is: Team members taking on the roles of customers, stakeholders, etc. and working through issues from their perspectives
  • Why we do it: It provides team members a way of experiencing a branding solution from a different point of view, helping them construct alternative solutions

Customer Reenactment

  • What it is: Having the client act out or describe what they believe to be the “typical” customer experience
  • Why we do it: This is a good way of uncovering the client’s beliefs about their customers and addressing areas of disconnect

Empathy Testing

  • What it is: Using tools (blindfolds, weights, etc.) to gain first-hand experience of what customers experience
  • Why we do it: This is a great method for understanding what physical limitations customers experience due to disabilities, environmental stresses, etc.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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1 Comment

  1. This “what it is” and “why we do it” presentation is an excellent introduction to research in its broader sense, countering the mistaken idea that it is done only in laboratories and super colliders.

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