Nathan/ You are probably one of the best design researchers on the planet. How did you approach strategy for your clients, especially when you weren’t necessarily hired to do strategy?
Christopher/ Thanks. Part of it came from my background. I have an MBA and strategy was just something I automatically thought about—in fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The thing about research, particularly design research, is you’re almost always learning things that directly apply to strategy. So, it’s just a matter of speaking up and saying, “Hey, look at this opportunity” or “Wow, look at this challenge.”
Nathan/ Did you ever feel insecure speaking-up about something you found when you weren’t, specifically, hired to do strategy?
Christopher/ It’s normal to feel unsure. But, I’m the oldest of seven and I’ve never felt insecure in my life. So, I probably butted-in where I wasn’t wanted, but it didn’t occur to me not to. I was fortunate to have really good rapport with most of my clients. I can think of only a few times when I was shut-out or when people would be rude and say, “I didn’t ask for your opinion,” but I would just drop them as clients.
Christopher/ It also helped that the kind of research I did was really early in the development process. The last thing you want is be in the last phase of development and have your researcher say, “Uh, by the way, your strategy sucks.” So, because I was early, I could help direct their product or market strategy. As we got later and later in the development process, my strategy comments would become more and more tactical. At that stage, I’d be able to affirm, “This color or form works well,” but it’s much too late for “This market isn’t good!”
Nathan/ For those of us who are not the first of seven, what would you suggest to people to build that kind of confidence?
Christopher/ Start with self-awareness—a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. You build confidence out of your strengths. Next, look at your partners—know who has your back and who complements or balances you. If you’re in a creative discipline, you’re likely a great visual or verbal communicator. Put yourself in a role where you’re communicating strategy with your talents. You’re doing what is asked, of you but have the opportunity to make suggestions. Then, reinforce it over and over again. Look for opportunities where you can make a contribution and just build it like any muscle.
Nathan/ How do you know when you’ve done enough research or strategy?
Christopher/ It depends on the purpose of the research. We had a number of clients who used research to mitigate risk. We had others who used it to explore, and these requests were quite different. The ones who wanted to reduce risk, honest to God, would hire us to do 80 one-on-ones, all over the country, sometimes the world. We’d be sitting in these back rooms hearing questions asked in the same way over and over and over again. And, after a while it’s so clear: “Oh my God, we’re hearing exactly the same thing! We’re not hearing anything new!” So, we were motivated to figure-out the point when we’ve gotten 80% of what’s there to get—where it’s going to take us tens of thousands of dollars to get the last 20%. Unless the client can cover those costs and is superrisk adverse, we don’t want to do that. We just want that 80%.
We started focusing closely on when we got to 80% and it ended-up being somewhere around 12 to 15 people when they were in a homogenous set. We checked that against academic research, and we found data that explained that you’d get 80% of all the information at about 15 interviews. After that, we just baked that into our process and sold our field work in sets of 15. Now, some clients would come to us and say, “Okay, we want you to do a global study in five countries and we want to do 20 interviews.” We would have to tell them “No, when we say 15, we mean 15 in China, 15 in Brazil, etc. Not 15 in the whole world.” Unless your topic is, you know, “What color is the sky?”
Nathan/ Was that a difficult sell?
Christopher/ It would depend. Sometimes it was, but we were logical sellers, not emotional sellers. We would just explain how and why we work, and we’d always give options. If they didn’t have that big of a budget, we’d get creative. For example, we might divide the countries between the “romantic” or “hot” countries and the “cool” ones. We would suggest 15 in each and that would often work.
Nathan/ The other thing is that the incremental cost isn’t that high compared to the overhead organizing the trip and study, in the first place. So, if you’re doing five, the next ten doesn’t blow the budget out that much.
Christopher/ You’re right, unless you’re dealing with a high cost respondent like a doctor. But, if you’re researching teenagers or parents, it doesn’t cost much more.
Nathan/ You mentioned “hot” and “cool” countries, which speaks to Marshall McLuhan’s observations about media, as well as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “hot” and “cold” families. Could you describe what you mean by this and talk a bit about segmentation? I can’t imagine it was always geographic. How would you suggest people best segment?
Christopher/ I mean “hot” and “cool” at a very high level. “Cool” is “rational.” “Hot” is “emotional.” There are cultures that are more built on emotion and others that are built on rationality; for example, Italy vs. Norway. We were fortunate to have deep-pocketed clients, like Pepsi, General Motors, Microsoft and Levis who really were interested in segmentation. They had massive audiences and they couldn’t afford to market to them in generalities.
If you’re familiar with Yakovich, he was very influential to us. We often segmented by psychology or behavior, rarely geographically—especially with technology users. With psychological segmentation, you look at differences between people: are they different because they’re introverts or extroverts, or are they outer-directed versus inner-directed? Are they conservative versus liberal? We’d find these big axes of significance and then start creating models. While we did the field work, we’d start sketching these models. One that was reasonably famous for us, was our teen segmentation model which categorized teens by whether they were adult pleasing or peer group pleasing and how connected they were.
With those two axes, we were able to figure-out how trends moved through the teen population, who the influencers were in each clique, and it became a robust tool for the companies who used it. We did the same thing for technology, but, there it was often product-centric: are you intimidated by technology or do you find it magical? Do you seek power or efficiency? That was a fun axis to find in people.
These became big products of ours. And, the more we did them, the more we knew about people. Right? The aquired knowledge increased our strategy chops because we could look at a market and tell companies “We know how these people are going to react to your product. We know how to get your product into this marketplace.”
Nathan/ Could you talk a bit about how you developed these innovative techniques?
Christopher/ Cheskin was deliberately designed as a creative agency. We looked at our competitors and they were all very conservative. They were all about being scientists and that wasn’t our culture. We were much more free-flowing, so our people were acknowledged and rewarded for creating new techniques all the time. One of my favorite challenges was when a large plumbing corporation hired us to research showers. They wanted to understand the experience people had taking them. Well, obviously, that’s not an easy thing to do because we can’t observe someone taking a shower. So we brainstormed and thought: “Oh, we can hire their significant other to do the video, and train them do be the ethnographer!” We let them know that we don’t want to see any naked parts but wanted to really get first-hand information on the showering experience. We got these fabulous videos from people who were standing right outside the shower asking their husbands or wives: “What are you thinking about? How does that water feel on your body?” It was just incredible data that we couldn’t have gotten any other way. We even turned it into a contest and gave some kind of prize for the most creative approach to the video.
Another creative approach one almost got us jailed. We wanted to know people’s relationships to the things they most loved and valued. So, a colleague came up with the idea to have people make a map of their home and show us where their most valuable stuff was. We were so caught-up in the research, it didn’t occur to us that this was a highly suspicious thing to ask of strangers. But we did get back a lot of these maps, and we found that people tended to keep their most prized possessions close to their bedroom. Then in the interviews after that, we’d take their map out and say, “Look how all your valuable stuff is close to your bedroom. Talk to us about that.” Most of the time they’d never realized that was the case.
We tried hard to do understand things that people didn’t know that about themselves. That’s how the idea of friendship pairs came to us. I can’t remember what the topic—maybe chocolate—but it was one where people routinely lied. People either lied about how much they ate or they didn’t accurately know how much they ate—they hide it from themselves. And we thought, well, their friends would know if they’re a chocaholic. So, then we started interviewing people in pairs, with their best friends, and we ended-up using that technique for a lot of different things. It’s remarkable how comfortable friends are saying: “That’s not you. You’re not really like that. You try to be like that, but you fail.”
Nathan/ Could you talk a little bit about the photo scans too?
Christopher/ Oh, yeah, that was Davis’ idea (Christopher’s husband and business partner) but I jumped on it immediately because I sensed the potential it held. The first time we did it was for Hallmark. Davis had sold some ridiculously over-the-top study promising that we’d photograph people and learn how they lived. My first response was, “How in the Hell were we going to photograph people all over the country?” But we soon realized that we could just send out hundreds of single-use disposable cameras to people. We told them to take specific photos of themselves and their lives and mail them back to us. It worked so fabulously well that we started doing it for everything. It was pretty inexpensive, and as we got better at it, we started being able to interpret the photos much as we would words. It was one of the ways we figured-out the teen segmentation. For example, we kept getting photos back from some teens only of their pets. And we thought, “That’s weird.” Well, it turns out the more nerdy kids didn’t have a lot of friends but they almost always had pets.
We were able to pioneer this approach that at a time when there were no digital cameras. By the time digital cameras came along, it was an incredible asset. Our creativity around that could just explode because all of the constraints were taken off.
Nathan/ There is really something wonderful about these cameras being sent out and then coming back and not having a lot of control over the picture. Do you think that changed now that people can take a lot of photos, edit them, and curate more on their end than they did before.
Christopher/ Yes. The biggest difference—and it’s a huge one—is when we sent the disposable cameras they couldn’t see the photos they were sending back to us. Sometimes they were blurry or they missed a shot, but they didn’t edit them. Now, I think we’d have to do something differently because we’d either get overwhelmed with way too many photos or they’d all be Instagram quality.
Nathan/ And, not only quality, but subject-wise. Now, there’s a culture of documentation and of selfies that kind of skews away from authenticity. The thing, to me, that was so valuable about the photo scans—and I got to see some of them from Purple Moon—is that they were utterly authentic. For example, one of the photos you asked for was a shot of you and your best friend. They’re probably going to careful consider what clothes or makeup they wear, but they’re not going to change the posters on the wall in their bedroom. So, the background is really the emphasis of what you learn and your insights about the photo scan, not necessarily the foreground.
Christopher/ That’s true. The background was always fascinating. For example, one time we got a photo that was of this kitchen. I had a feeling there was more to it, so I started zooming in and zooming in, and I found a key chain. And on the key chain I found an AA medallion. All of a sudden, I knew a whole lot about this person. I knew they were they were sober. They were in the program. They were proud of their success. We would just find little things like that. It was fascinating. Yes, sometimes they would dress for the camera, but that’s how we learned that teenaged good friends often dressed identical to each other.
You could also tell, just by the types of pictures they would take, how many of the pictures were outside versus inside, closeups versus far away. There was just a lot to learn about it. I mean, I could teach a whole class on deconstructing visuals. The most difficult thing for us was to manage was that we were always on a tight timeline. We rarely had more than six weeks to do a project, maybe eight weeks if international. We had to give up a lot of information that we could have gotten from visuals because we just didn’t have time.
Nathan/ One of the other things that impressed me so much about the Purple Moon research is that, while your focus was “Why don’t girls play computer games or use computers?” you took the time to also research boys‑-not the majority of your research, but in order to check against what you were learning from girls.
Christopher/ We tried to do that for most projects because you can always get information from the opposite of what you’re looking at. It’s very common in technology to interview early adopters but we also wanted to learn from late adopters or laggards. What we wanted to know was, “Why aren’t you adopting, what is the problem?” We wouldn’t do as many of these interviews because we were just looking for the nuggets in there. But, it helps you calibrate. With the Purple Moon studies, we knew that there were real differences between girls and boys of that age, but we weren’t sure which were inherent and which were culturally-driven. We did tons of interviews with leading academics in gender and child development, and they weren’t sure either. Part of this was just exploring if there was range in boys that overlaps with girls. There are always some girls that were more like boys and some boys that were more like girls. So, we didn’t want to be hard and fast with that division.
Nathan/ Davis once told me about an idea that you were exploring at Cheskin to hire barbers and hairdressers to initiate conversations with their clients about certain things and to report back as a way of understanding here people were on different topics.
Christopher/ We experimented with that. It was barbers, hair stylists, bartenders, taxi drivers, and maybe one or two others. It’s great idea if you have a client who hires you to explore. The problem we found is that they we’re often too subjective for what we needed. They’d tell us what they think is important. They’d filter too much out. You can use it as an exploratory tool, but not as a risk reduction tool.
I love exploratory research. Purple Moon was exploratory. If anything, that’s the thing that is sadly missing today because tech and so many other industries have become so risk obsessive. They’re just not out there exploring. Particularly with crypto or Web 3, if they had been more exploratory, if they had put just a little of that venture money into thinking out of the box, I think they’d be in a lot better shape now. None of them has been able to cross the chasm, yet. They’re stuck with a very small group of users and if they don’t figure out how to make it relevant to the rest of the population then they’re dead and there’s no way they can get beyond that. There’s more than a little arrogance in the assumption that your product is so amazing, people are going to have to use it.
Nathan/ How would you characterize the difference between what is called market research versus the kinds of research you were doing? Cheskin (and others) called it market insight to differentiate it. Is the difference more than just qual versus quant? Is there something else that defines what you were uncovering for your clients versus what they were getting from other sources?
Christopher/ Market research is largely focused on benefiting the company financially. It’s focused on making more money. That makes it quant-centric. It doesn’t care so much about users, it cares about markets. So, it aggregates in order to answer questions like: “How many people can we get to buy this? Can we raise the price 3 cents and not lose any of our market or lose only 1% of our market?” It’s got a deep financial basis.
Design research has always focused on the user in order to learn from them what the company could and should do. The power structure is switched, the power is with the user, not the company. Design research uses a much wide range of techniques to do that. It’s about benefiting the user, making them happy, and then getting the company or the design team to accept that, be immersed in it, and then develop better things.
Nathan/ That’s what makes it so strategic!
Christopher/ Exactly. Market research treats people as interchangeable so all you can really do is tweak things in that context. Design research acknowledges our diversity and humanness and makes that important. If you really care about serving people and value, you need to understand how people work. The interesting thing about Louis Cheskin, who I never met, is that he took the techniques of market research and his understanding of people’s psychology and determined things others couldn’t. In one of his studies, he was able to tell some restaurant to paint their roof red and they would be more profitable—and they did—and they were! His research showed that people were attracted to red roofs. It’s not that people cared about red roofs, and he certainly didn’t have an agenda about them, but he just knew that red roofs would heighten appeal.
Nathan/ I think that Louis Cheskin was probably the first experiential researcher and totally unsung in the history of business and marketing. It really sets him apart from Edward Bernays, who was all about manipulating consumers but without the research. His was all wacky interpretations of his uncle’s theories (that would be Sigmund Freud). Bernays would start with “women have penis envy” and then set out to prove it—and then use it in advertising. So, while Cheskin could be called manipulative in one sense, he didn’t have an agenda. He just wanted to understand which stimuli created which change in behaviors.
Nathan/ Lastly, tell me about your first Toyota Prius . You were the CEO of a company and you got rid of your Jaguar convertible in favor of the Prius.
Christopher/ The Jag was my dream car too. I coveted it. I thought it was the prettiest car on the planet. When I bought it, it reinforced to me that I was successful. It embodied some of the things that I valued without being overstated. But, the Prius was becoming a car that I thought an intelligent person bought. It was the “right” thing to do. And by that time, I knew I was successful. I didn’t need reinforcement. What I wanted to do was set an example. I wanted to say, “CEOs drive Priuses.”
But, walking into the dealership, the whole thing was downgraded. It felt like I was being punished for buying one. I could own any car I wanted and I chose this one but, when I got there, I was treated like I should be happy with the bare basics. I was told I couldn’t have a nice sound system. I couldn’t have leather seats. They thought about the market for that car in the wrong way—it could have been much larger. But thankfully they were successful despite the shortcoming in their vision. This goes full circle right back to strategy. People really miss the boat when they focus their strategy exclusively on existing markets and only through the lens of traditional market research.
This interview is from A Whole New Strategy: Everything You Need To Think And Act mMore Strategically