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Shades of grey of the human experience with Matt dobbin

Shades Of Grey Of The Human Experience With Matt Dobbin

Market research can reveal surprising and interesting things about the human experience.  It’s easy to make assumptions about your customers based on your own biases.  For example, you could assume that travel books are no longer relevant to travellers.  Why would you need a travel book when you have access to so many travel apps?  According to Matt Dobbin, Director of Atticus Research, travel books are still very much relevant to travellers today, often providing a respite from digital connectivity.

Matt started his career in market research after university, where he studied English Literature.  His degree armed him with many of the skills necessary for market research including gathering research, developing an angle and using research to support that angle.  Through research, he has studied almost every aspect of the human experience, both on and offline.

You must have seen many changes to the way in which market research is conducted.

They have changed dramatically, but not as quickly as I thought they were going to.  We experimented with all the platforms available, such as online focus groups, and most of it pretty much fell flat.

In recent years, we’ve been using more and more online data capture methods particularly around mobile ethnography – an app on an individual’s phone, which enables them to capture experiences in the moment.  We’re finding that people are so comfortable talking to their phone, and expressing thoughts and emotions to it, that the filters are disappearing.  People are becoming very confessional.

So, a bit like a diary study but visual?

Yes.  Sometimes it’s as much about the expression and body language than what they are saying.   Even just the eyes give away so much.  For instance, we did some research with young people about how they go about choosing jobs and careers and asked them at a general level about their future, aims and ambitions.  We found that they would be saying quite positive things but some of them – as they are saying these things – are looking at the ground, looking up to the corner and not really believing what they are saying.  Without mobile ethnography we wouldn’t have got that extra bit of data.

Customer research, rather than assumption, for making product and service decisions has largely become a hygiene factor for business, how has this affected your work?

We’ve increasingly found our clients are speaking the same language as us and also have an understanding of behavioural science.  Ten years ago, senior people in client companies would refuse to believe that human emotions could play a role in how consumers choose brands or products.  It now seems hilarious that anyone would make a judgement about human beings based on a spreadsheet.

Has this made it easier to change client’s minds about their customers?

We often find in client organisations that there are one or two people who are really in touch with customer attitudes and behaviours, but they can find they are a loan voice.  Then there are others who are very close to their brand and their product.  Maybe they’ve been working close to it for a long time and have become a bit status quo or confirmation biased.  They will only look for things in the data that confirms their own beliefs.  They start, without realising it, to shut themselves off from the wider world, other views, stories or behaviours.

Consumer behaviour can be messy, constantly changing and quite hard to tackle.  I often find that there are one or two people who do have this vision and good true insight will help guide them and improve sales, the product, help them develop etc.  And that’s a big part of what we’re doing in research – not just those gems of insight that will really help businesses stand in consumer’s shoes – but enable everyone in the organisation to see the world from their consumer’s perspective.

Data capture methods like mobile ethnography provide visual stories that help people understand why consumers feel the way they do.  Clients have the confidence to make often quite big changes in the business, which only comes from seeing inside the mind of the consumer and understanding how they relate to the market in which they operate.  

Social media is only partly representative of a person, so does it have a role to play in research?

We use social media purely to understand the image that people want to create about themselves.  It’s useful to understand, not just the real customer base, but also the image that they are projecting to the outside world and how those two differ.

For example, if a drink’s brand wants to understand how young people are referring to alcohol in their lives, their social media can be really interesting.  Particularly with millennials, who seemingly don’t want to show pictures of themselves drunk.  10 or 15 years ago that’s what young people wanted to do.  That’s a big shift for drinks brands to understand.

You can use social media to understand or validate whether people are presenting different versions of themselves to 10 years ago.  It can be really useful for challenging those assumptions and understanding the difference between who people are and the image they want to present of themselves.  It’s become a bit like a shop window for your personal brand.  I suspect younger generations coming into it will use it in very different ways.

That’s interesting, what do you know so far about how social media fits into their lives?

We’ve found that young people are under greater pressure to perform in terms of school and achievements, they feel that the bar is constantly being set higher and higher.  Everything in your life has to be super smooth and perfect.  They are often looking for ways of managing the stress that results in.

We’ve found that a lot of people share motivational thoughts, books and thinking around mindfulness and psychology.  They follow stories or people who have achieved things against the odds, the under dogs, as a way of coping or having empathy with others.

It’s easy to look to the media who love a black and white, goodies vs baddies story.  Social media is double-edged, it can also act as a means of support.  Friendship groups within networks are often supportive of each other.  This plays to the whole story that nothing is quite what you think.  What research does is reveal those shades of grey.  

Where next for behavioural science?

To some degree I feel behavioural science has hit a bit of a plateaux and I wonder where next for this.  What’s interesting to me is the next generations – the digital natives.  We were talking this morning about Thomas Cook finishing up the 18 to 30 brand, because that’s not how millennials want to experience travel.  That’s one small area of change.  

Baroness Susan Greenfield has done a lot of work over the years around how the brain develops and has expressed a number of concerns about how the absence of certain activities in our development is possibly going to change or affect brain development.  We’re not going to make the same synapse connections if we’re not doing certain things.  She talks about how, if children stop reading books, their brains will be different as adults.  Only reading a book enables your brain to do a number of simultaneous things like following the plot, envisaging characters, empathising with character situations.

I’m interested to see how these next generations are going to change.  The way their brains are hardwired is going to be different.

Which books would you recommend to someone interested in learning more about behavioural science?

I think Dan Ariely’s books on behavioural economics, especially Predictably Irrational, are a very entertaining and relatable place to start – it was his work that first got me hooked on the subject – they are a brilliant read, really fun and full of great examples and experiments that demonstrate how the way our brains are hard-wired affects our behaviour and decision making.

However, there is more to behavioural economics than showing how we are flawed and biased, and Gerd Gigerenzer in his books Heuristics: The Foundation of Adaptive Behavior and Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions, has a different take on these things – that many of these alleged flaws are design features of the mind and mostly hugely useful. This is an area my colleagues and I are looking at to understand what this human operating system looks like, and how to help our clients make sense of it in order to drive behaviour change. 


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