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Finding the right question
Beware of the way questions frame the possible answers
One of the biggest challenges for any applied behavioural science research project is identifying the nature of the problem to be researched. This may seem a little pedantic as much of the time the question is clear – people are forgetting to take their medication, so how do we remind them? Or those living in heavily polluted urban centres are using ineffective means to protect themselves against air pollution, so how do we educate them? Or a bank wants to encourage people to save more, so how can they nudge them?
At first glance, these all seem straightforward questions which can be used to develop a programme of research. But, in reality, the question that is being posed often contains a number of assumptions about the underlying issues. Perhaps people are not forgetting their medication but simply don’t want to take it. This might be for a whole host of reasons; people can sometimes decide to develop their own treatment regime which differs from the advice of the doctor, they might dislike the side-effects or people may think they are well enough, so they don’t need the medication any longer.
Similarly, with air-pollution, there is an assumption that the only reason people are using inefffective means of pollution protection is because of a lack of education and similarly there is an assumotion people can be encouraged to save money by being nudged.
It is probably apparent that the problem with all of these examples is two-fold. First, the framing of the question can all too easily carry with it an assumption of the reasons for the behaviour. As with the medical adherence issue, there can be many reasons for the behaviour that we can see need to be teased out.
Second, related to this, the framing of the behaviour in question determines the scope of the possible influences. A good example here is how when we set out to understand how people make decisions about compacted household goods. By this we mean ways in which items such as fabric care can come in a concentrate form, reducing packaging and distribution costs. There is a significant cost involved for CPG brands that produce compacted versions of their products and as such they are keen to ensure that they sell.
How do we go about identifying the question? We could ask the question in relation to the shopper at the shelf – how the shopper decide between the different products available. This subtly focuses us on the way that pack formats, location in the store, promotional materials all influence the decision. But to ask the question in this way then ignores the huge social and cultural influences that have been built over long periods of time by the FMCG industry, often focusing on the size of the pack as an example of value for money. Or the way in which users of these products can feel as if the act of adding more fabric care to the washing is a symbol of their love for others in the household. There is potentially a network of shared meanings with a long legacy, all happening before the shopper arrives to make a decision at the shelf.
Hence the way we frame a question, can subtly influence where we look for the answer. Rather than trying to understand it in terms of pack, location on shelf, pricing and so on, we could usefully look further afield in terms of the cultural meaning of fabric care products.
The point is that we need to be clear about the question to be asked, to understand what the implied assumptions are that we bring with it. No question will ever be free of this – but we need to at least be clear what these are and how they shape the way in which we then conduct our research.
Identifying the question to ask actually often be the most difficult part of the research process. But get that right and answering it can, surprisingly, actually be easier than expected.