The latest news from the meaning blog


The curse of seeing everything

Model of brain activityFrom Research 2010, MRS, London, 23-24 March 2010

A major issue with post-modern research methods, or ‘new MR’ as it is sometimes called –  a recurrent theme at the Research 2010 conference – is the amount of data and consequent effort that goes into extracting any meaning from this data. This came home in the new technology session, chaired by Robert Bain and billed as ‘Research Unlimited’.  Not that any of the technology being presented was essentially new – naming the session “incremental developments in technologies based around memory and newly applied to market research” may have added precision, but not made the message any clearer.

The pursuit of clarity should be at the heart of any new methods – and that is a challenge with two of the methods showcased  based on neurometrics – from Nunwood’s head of R&D Ian Addie and Millward Brown’s new head of ‘Consumer Neuroscience’, Graham Page. Page is probably the first MR staffer to have the N-word in their job title.


Improvements in EEG measurement and analysis technology  make the approach more affordable and slightly more applicable to surveys in the real world, but they still have a long way to go. The electrode caps and camera-rigged spectacles modelled on stage by Addie, and even the slimmed down version shown by Page, are still pretty clunky and intrusive. Addie also cautioned that ‘noise’ in the data collection meant that 30 per cent of the data they had collected had to be discarded.

Positivism with a big P

Both speakers showed that this kind of data can aid understanding, and can usefully cast a new light on some deeply held assumptions about consumer behaviour, which is no bad thing. Nunwood respondents who had been wired up with electrodes for supermarket visits had revealed that a significant amount of time in selecting products seemed to be spent in rejecting other projects – not something that is much questioned in conventional recall studies. As research was busy going po-mo in other sessions, this looked like a rallying call for Positivism with a big P.

Page cautioned: “Hype means it is very easy to get carried away with exaggerated claims [for neuroscience]. The results don’t stand on their own: you have to combine this with something else.”

Not only that, but you quickly accumulate a vast amount of data that takes time and effort to process. Furthermore, to give any meaning to it, you must be applying the qualitative judgements of the researcher or neuroscientist. This additional burden was also true of the other novel method in the session. Here, Bob Cook from Firefly presented an interesting extension to diary research – particularly those studies that lean towards the auto-ethnographic – with a methodology based on Lifelogging, or ‘glogging’ using a small fish-eye camera worn by the participant around their neck. This can take a shot and capture everything the respondent sees, paced out at minute intervals throughout the day. Cook reckons it can overcome the usual problems of incomplete recall that can arise over the more mundane and automatic activities respondents may be asked about.

Making sense of the data

The problem, in trying to move such techniques into the mainstream, comes at the analysis stage. To get meaning from these techniques takes extraordinary effort – and they are not amenable to the analytical methods conventionally applied to either qual or quant. We’re not usually short of data these days, but we are short of tools to make sense of these new streams of data. Without them, analysis is inordinately time-consuming. Technology makes it easy to add precision in volumes, but with all these new methods, it falls heavily on the researcher to bring out the message.

Our new website launches


Wait a long time for a bus and when it arrives, how often is there another one right behind? So too it seems with websites. Not only did research magazine launch its splendid new website last week, but following right on, so did we. And the two are not unconnected. What we launched this week is the first phase of our complete overhaul of our web presence. All the goodies and resources of old are there – the software reviews, the software directory, our research reports, papers, presentations and articles. There are four big changes, though.

  1. At the centre of our site is now our blog stream. We will fill this regularly with contributions from me and the others at meaning.
  2. We want to make the site part of a two-way dialogue. Yes, we’re being very Web 2.0 and we are proud of it. So there is opportunity for you to register on the site, and then you will be able to add comments and provide feedback on many of the pages on the site as well as, we hope, react to and contribute to our discussions in the blog.
  3. We have provided an RSS feed to the content, so you can be kept up to date as we add new content, if that interests you.
  4. We have also taken the opportunity to rationalise the order of the content on the site and made it even easier to navigate, we hope.

Behind the scenes, we have moved our site from a static website managed with increasing difficulty in Dreamweaver, to an up-to-date, content management system. We are using WordPress and MySQL, having looked at and discarded Joomla and Drupal, and we are very happy with the result. While many think of WordPress as being a blogging tool, we were very pleased to find that it is also a mean and highly efficient CMS, with a lot of extensions available for managing really quite large, content rich sites flexibly and relatively easily.

But this is only phase 1. Shortly we will be announcing an completely new and vastly extended replacement for Research Software Central, our software database, which we are doing jointly in association with Research magazine. And at the same time, Research magazine are going to be featuring highlights from our blog. We hope you like the changes. We hope you will tell us what you think – using our new comment form down below.

meaning goes 2.0

A nice piece of synergy dropped into place today. I was at the MRS to talk with the research magazine team including Marc Brenner, who is editor on research. We are working on something jointly between research and meaning, which we will be announcing in a month or so’s time, I hope. As it happens, research has embarked on a major redesign and relaunch of the research-live website, with a lot of web-specific content and new Web CMS at the back of it(not WordPress – something rather more elaborate and expensive). One element of the new site will five featured blogs – and Marc has asked to syndicate my blog as one of the featured blogs when the research site relaunches mid-June. Well, at least that will ensure that I do it with some regularity…

So to the rationale behind the blog and the site redesign. Our aim is to make the experience of visiting the meaning website more dynamic and more of a two-way communication. The blog is central to that. We will add the news stories we have been doing for some time into the blog stream, and allow visitor to comment on them. And of course, I am keen to get feedback on the pieces that I write too. All you need to do is register on the site, and we will take it from there.

You will have observed that the blog does not not start with this article, or its precedessor. What we have done is republished previous news stories from the old site into the blog stream here, and I have also added in some of the more recent think-pieces I had written which are also quite blog-like. I hope you like the approach, and I also hope you will feel free to make a comment if you have anything you think we at meaning or other readers might find interesting.

A new blog starts here!

For a while now I’ve been thinking of doing a blog – a professional blog about market research and technology – about the stuff I think about at meaning, a bit of the background to some of the reviews I do, notes from conferences I go to, interesting conversations I have with people who come to see me, or vice versa. There could be plenty to say, and it might even be interesting to other people. Indeed, from time to time, people have asked me if I have a blog, and the answer has moved recently from “no”, to the more cryptic “not yet, but that might be about to change”. Today the answer switches to “yes”, though I am starting with a soft launch. Chances are, you will find this as you dip back through the archive.

I realised I had to take the plunge. One concern I had had for a long time was that I am often brought in to discussions with companies in confidence – often with good reason as they may be trialling a new idea with me, or the situation the have asked me to look at is not one that covers them in glory. I had used that as a reason no to blog. But lately I have realised that there is still plenty to say without breaching confidence – and if I am in doubt, I can always ask if people mind if I blog about what they have just told me. People might be interested in my ideas, the connections I make, the things I see (perhaps even some of the things I don’t see).

So I taken the plunge. I’ve been tinkering around with WordPress for a few weeks now, after it featuring in a session on Web 2.0 communications at the British Computer Society. I realised that not only would it be a wonderful vehicle for my meaning blog, but rather like the person who naively approaches Ikea one Sunday with their spouse, to buy a new bowl to do the dishes, and ends up ordering a whole new kitchen, so the blog project has led to moving our entire site into a content management system (yes, using WordPress, which is a surprisingly versatile CMS too). The site won’t launch for a few more weeks, but from today I am blogging in anticipation.

Of course, those of you who know me very well will know that there is a bit of the programmer in me still, from my early days. I don’t think I was actually a very good programmer, but I know how it works, and from time to time, it can make a pleasant change to be knitting some code again. So, I have been delving deep into MySQL, PHP and of course CSS. I hope you are impressed. I am a bit surprised by what I have managed to do. But it also serves to remind me just how slow and painstaking any kind of code development is, even in today’s so-called rapid development environments. And how 3% of the end result can seem to consume 97% of the effort – particularly galling when it happens to be the last 3% prior to launch.

In my next post I will say a bit more about my plans for the blog, and also the back catalogue – you may have noticed a curious feature of this entry, for entry number one, is that it is not the first entry.