Discontinuity the key to research analysis

discontinuity attributes of design essential for research analysisThe tools of research analysis aren’t confined to research. Actually they are the tools of human thinking. Which means they are shared with designers, musicians, philosophers, mathematicians. I could go on. Because they are universal.  The graphic on the right is my summary list. What it really comes down to is discontinuity. Humans are very good at detecting difference.  We notice when something isn’t as we expect it. When our experience is unchanging we go onto automatic pilot. But when a break in what we are expecting happens we wake up.

Discontinuity matters even when change is happening. Because we notice if the rate of change is accelerating or slowing. That’s the foundation for calculus. What we’re not good at doing is making sense of exponential change – its hard for us to keep it in proportion.  If you work in research you may resent the idea that all we are doing is collecting data and making comparisons. But at its heart that is exactly what we are doing. The key to finding those research insights is to know how to make selections of the data so those differences become very visible.

Discontinuous elements of research analysis

Contrast is the most simple – a zebra sticks out as different from a donkey – even if superficially they may share the same shape.

Direction is the second – because when we see a series we expect it to continue – when it doesn’t we notice – its a form of bias which the cognitive behaviourists pick up on. We fill gaps because we expect the data in the middle to be consistent with what has happened before. Or what happens afterwards.

Emphasis is subtle. But we all notice when it is there! In research repetition of the same phrase. Or the same thing described in different ways are forms of emphasis we look for.  For example by asking customers to prepare maps of who they like to shop with and for what items- we can find out those pairings which are most likely to result in particular purchases

Economy is a strange one but  it is the simplest way to tell a story. Taking out the noise – taking down every single data point to show in the simplest possible way what is happening. I once designed a piece of research to find those who claimed they were willing to holiday in France. But who had not noticed that they had not actually been to France for over a decade. They hadn’t noticed.  That was the most significant part of the project. Everything they said about France and why holidays in France were great was caveated when it turned out they weren’t going any more. Economy is how we simplify an insight to the fundamentals

discontinuity - the uneven platformProportion. The relationship between two different groups of people. Or between a particular group and their context.  There’s what you expect. And what you don’t.  I once worked on a makeup project where what became significant was whether the lipstick we were looking at was suitable for women. Or was a sample or toy more suited to their daughters.  It was the comparison between the two which became insightful.

Balance – when two different values cancel out – or support each other. Sometimes this is a hierarchy where some messages are ranked in higher priority but are balanced in importance by a range of smaller ones.

Rhythm or repetition – when we get lots of similar patterns -0r patterns repeat then we know something is going on.  Sometimes the giveaway is when everything becomes the same. This is when we get respondents to do sorting exercises – even if they seem to be doing the same thing over and over – use that to find what is behind the pattern.

Unity. how things fit together. Or when you find something that groups of people who have nothing in common with one another nonetheless share. I once discovered that a particular group of customers some with huge houses and some with small – very different people – still displayed very similar characteristics in how they laid out their living rooms. That showed why all of them had bought into this particular brand.

Discontinuity – beware of uneven surfaces!

I close with a photos of my local railway platform.  Which I never noticed till it was resurfaced and a sign went up warning us to be careful about slipping or tripping over. Then I noticed that it wasn’t even. That’s the simplest definition of discontinuity. Don’t trip over! And use it to do better research analysis.

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