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Last week I was watching the CBS morning news and they had a story about a new study that indicated that your attitude toward gym class as a child shaped your attitude toward exercise your entire life. After watching the story I am convinced that it is another case of causation being confused for correlation.
 
The basics were that kids who reported loving gym class were far more active decades later than kids who reported finding it stressful (“I was always picked last”).  I don’t doubt this correlation. My problem is they spoke of a need to make gym class more inclusive so that all kids grow up to exercise more. In other words, if we can take the stress out of gym for kids who are not good at sports, we can get them to love exercise more. I’m not sure achieving the first part of this is possible and I’m even more certain that even if we do it will not alter future behavior. 
 
I don’t see how you can eliminate the anxiety about gym class without eliminating the physical activity. Sure you could eliminate picking teams and save that humiliation, but once the games begin the kids who are poor at sports will continue to feel anxiety. Even if you simply make it an exercise class, the kids who are out of shape will stand out. Short of one-on-one classes I don’t see how you can fix the problem.
 
Doing so is also not likely to make us more active as adults. The kids who were not good at gym were not good for a variety of reasons but likely they either lacked the natural talent OR more likely the interest in sports that the athletes had. Gym class wasn’t the cause of this! If there had been no gym class I would bet that the kids who didn’t like gym class would still be less active than those that did (those who loved it and/or were good at it). I’d point the “causation arrow” backwards….if you love sports as an adult you probably liked gym class.  
 
It is easy to forget that we have to play a role in explaining statistical principles in our reporting and not just when doing sophisticated work like Discrete Choice Conjoint, Max-Diff, Segmentations and Regressions. Our direct clients likely understand causation and correlation issues, but it is important to know that their internal clients may not. Clear justification for pointing the “causation arrow” must be provided in reports and presentations. Just as important is knocking down attempts to point the arrow based solely on correlation. Otherwise they may walk away with a completely false assumption and not double back with researchers to validate it.  
 
This study is also useful in highlighting another common mistake made by internal clients. I was telling an old friend about the study and he said “that can’t be right, you hated gym class and you are far more active now than when we were kids”. Imagine me in a focus group telling my story of how much I hated waiting to be picked for a team and how my memory of that humiliation caused me to exercise more and more as an adult. The internal client stands up and says “That’s how we make people healthier…more humiliation in gym class!” In that case, someone will be in the room to point out that one person’s story is not projectable to the population…but that’s another blog. 
 
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The Economy of Food at Sporting Events
Image source: www.sports-management-degrees.com

As we learn to make sense of ever expanding amounts of data into simple recommendations, we would do well to think about presenting data in a better way. People often make the mistake of describing themselves as either a “numbers person” or a “picture person”, but in reality we all possess two sides of the brain. …right (images) and left (analytics). I read an article this week which makes the point that the best way to drive understanding is by presenting analytical data in a visual way. This engages both sides of the brain and thus helps us to quickly internalize what we are seeing.

We might be tempted to say that data visualization is easier said than done (but then what isn’t?). We might also be tempted to say that most market research data isn’t that interesting. I tend to disagree.  

Just last week I exchanged some emails with Sophia Barber of Sports-management-degrees.com. She pointed me to a great info graphic about spending on food at sporting events. It is colorful and comprehensively covers a lot of data. If you are a “numbers person” you might try paging about halfway down where all of the underlying data are presented in stark form. My bet would be that even the staunchest numbers person will get more from the combination than from the dull recitation of facts.  

Of course, both food and sports are relatively interesting topics, but what if the topic isn’t fun and interesting? I still say that results from even highly analytical studies (things like conjoint, discrete choice, pricing studies and so on) can be made more memorable and more interesting through the simple addition of pictures and I mean pictures that go beyond simple graphs and charts (which are often as dull as a list of numbers). Doing so drives the point home faster and with that makes our work more relevant.  

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Market researchers are fighting each day for a seat at the decision-making table. More and more "research professionals" are being bypassed by smart people with access to good tools, a hotly-debated topic within our community and perhaps a harbinger of what's to come in terms of when and how client- and vendor-side researchers get to contribute advice and ideas.

And yet too many researchers believe the value of market research is self-evident, and that the challenge facing our industry is really more of an obstacle caused by "everyone else." I see this train of thought emerge frequently on Twitter, or within any number of blogs and MRX-related posts.  It typically gets expressed along these lines:

Netflix screwed up. McDonald's screwed up. Coca-Cola screwed up (multiple times). If only they had done research!  A (name any large dollar amount) disaster that could have been averted with a $100,000 investment in listening to the customer. Silly companies.

Folks, it's hard to get better without humility.

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  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky says #
    Great post. Research needs to have impact on decision making - and demonstrably so. For suppliers, it's difficult to get all the a

magical_eyeThere's a lot of discussion today about the researcher as story-teller. Most of it has to do with the choices we make as analysts - what to focus on and what to discard; all important stuff.

Ultimately, however, we have to step up and tell those stories and good visual display is critical to that effort. Too often we fall short of effective in this area, and that's a problem. Market Researchers are fighting everyday for respect, but we'll never get it if we can't communicate the good (or bad) news we have to tell about brands and products and customers. To quote "Information Is Beautiful" author David McCandless from a recent interview in "Research:"

...everything you create now design-wise is competing with everything else that everyone ever looks at. So market research stuff is looking worse and worse as time goes by, because the web and good design are becoming more and more of a daily experience for people.

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  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky says #
    Thanks for this very good advice. I've often talked about the need for the market researcher to stand with one foot outside the m

The 2012 Presidential Election season is upon us. I don't know about you, but other than the barrage of commercials, the thing I like least about political campaigns is the terrible abuse of numbers. Combined with the current debate on the debt limit and we have the makings of a tsunami of misleading or outright incorrect statistics.

A  few weeks ago, Megan Holstine started a discussion about a Senator using a totally made up statistic. Sadly for him, he quoted a number that was far from accurate, but also one that was easily verified. His defense was that he didn't intend the statistic to be taken "literally".

Makes me wonder if perhaps we've got it wrong.  Think of the possibilities for us if we stopped taking numbers literally!

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