Passive research

The idea that simply asking people questions gets the right answers is open to debate. In surveys, people say things they don’t mean, do diametrically opposite things from what they say. So, is there an alternative? A company called Affinnova calls it evolutionary design. The research does not ask people what they prefer about a product. They simply present them with hundreds of design options and ask them to pick the ones they like. Turns out that it is a far better indicator of preferences than regular answers. When the need to articulate an answer is removed, people are more truthful.

Sounds crazy, right? But that’s the exact way we go about our purchases. We pick out products that catch our eye. So, by observing behaviour, we get a much better idea about response than by checking with questions. Which sets the stage for passive research – analysing the data we generate doing what we do every day. Travelling, Making calls. Surfing the net. Buying things online. Checking in at locations. Online ad networks know what we are interested in – and serve us more of the same. It’s getting better at predicting what we will buy – and what we won’t. Which explains the uproar and the response from developers who do not want privacy controls legislated.

But the other benefits of a highly networked world are just getting clearer. What is the asthma footprint of the world? A site called Asthmapolis has GPS inhaler trackers that record when it is used. Combine all of this and you get a clear picture of how the climate is affecting asthma sufferers – without asking them a single question. Or the T-Drive research project from Microsoft – it tracks the routes taken by cab drivers to get to a destination by combining the benefits of GPS with real-world experience. In the process, it throws up routes that are normally not considered. Somehow, researching what we really do seems to provide far better insights that what we say.

Edited: 26th June 2020: Today, I heard from a company demystifying innovation. The word has several connotations and the approach they have taken is to build a process around it. Here’s an excerpt: The stereotypical notion of smart people in lab coats churning out patents and potions is perhaps a common one, and yet it fails to tell the whole story, as innovation can also cover everything from novel business models to new processes. It can be incremental and sustaining just as much as it can be radical and disruptive.