Dr Sara Bragg

A recent University of Brighton initiative, the Research Leadership Programme, involves participants shadowing a ‘research leader’ from a different institution for a day. I went to meet Matt Arnold, head of research at Face Group in London; its website describes it as ‘a global strategic insight agency’ delivering ‘socially intelligent research by combining qualitative insight, real-time data and smart thinking’.

I expected the Fatboy beanbags in the reception area on my arrival, but I was more surprised to be shown into a starkly-lit basement, where Matt and a colleague were huddled over a conference call with a client. I gained a clear impression of the speed and pace of the corporate world, observing Matt helping colleagues work out the logistics of designing and delivering research in different countries and even continents within the space of a few days. I wondered how compatible such long hours would be with ‘work-life balance’, and how far this is a young (single/childfree?) person’s world…

I was equally fascinated by their research methods, and here there were immediate similarities with ‘innovative’ social science approaches. For instance, Face Group has developed an app that prompts research participants to generate data such as a diary, photos, film, notes. As in the social sciences, ‘traditional’ focus groups are increasingly seen as limited, capturing conscious, post-hoc rationalised reconstructions of behaviour rather than contextualised feelings and actions in the moment.

Face Group also has its own ‘social media listening’ service, distinguished by a sophisticated natural language processing capacity that can help identify different kinds of consumer and what they are ‘saying’ across social media platforms. Having recently experimented with using free social media analysis packages such as Node XL to understand teachers’ professional learning networks, I am only too aware of their limitation and the desirability of more powerful tools such as these.

Similarly, ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-research’ are increasingly popular and widespread terms. Face Group can lay claim to some ownership of the concept, having developed specific, multi-layered, recursive research processes under this rubric. For instance, developing new personal care products might bring together the client with the ad agency, design agency, R&D and experts from Face Group’s own ‘black book’ (such as, a hairdresser with their own exclusive product range, fashion specialists, a sous-chef who understands smell and taste). Consumers would be carefully recruited – completing questionnaires, auditions and set tasks – to ensure they were articulate, sociable and represented ‘100%’ of different target audiences. Over the course of an intensive five-day programme, experts would give presentations; consumers provide information about themselves, how they think, what they do, their lifestyle and attitudes; diverse teams would be assembled; new product ideas would be developed with R&D keeping ‘in the parameters of what is realistic’ and using creative techniques where participants build on each others’ ideas; an artist would be on hand to capture the affective texture of the day… culminating in outcomes matching the objectives set out at the beginning.

Or to give another example, a project to develop new smart technologies involved intensive mini-ethnographies, spending a few hours with research participants at work and at home, to understand their needs and technological dilemmas in situ. Diverse findings were then grouped and condensed into vivid ‘vignettes’ when presenting findings to the client. At a procedural level, again, there are many resonances with social science methods, right down to the presence of visual artists at conferences. Certainly, the Face 2 Face project in which I have been involved has been discussing similar approaches.

Social science is often concerned with marginalized social groups, who (being poorer) are necessarily of less interest from a marketing point of view. Our audiences may also be less keen on our findings, however well-grounded, than a client seeking knowledge of a market: in education, for example, politicians consistently ignore evidence about the negative consequences of ability-labelling and streaming practices. Education researchers often speak in terms of loftier goals such as ‘social justice’. Could this be broken down into achievable goals and steps and a programme for delivering it developed through co-research? What is the place of data analysis – would a social scientist make very different use of the kinds of data gathered by market research? At a conference of the Centre for Research into Economic and Social Change (CRESC) I attended some years ago, some fascinating papers were doing just that with survey data from the 1950s. It would be very interesting to develop further dialogues about these issues across sectors, data, and interests.

February 20th, 2015

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