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Market Research in the Toilet

market research in toiletI read an astounding fact this week, “More Indians have used a mobile phone than a toilet”. It seemed absurd to me that a relatively new technology would outpace an old (and very useful) one. I came to realize that the absurdity was mainly due to the fact that I couldn’t imagine a world without either device and it struck me that this is an example of what ails the market research world.

The fact is that Indians have not chosen the cell phone over indoor plumbing. The former is widely available (because cell phone infrastructure is relatively easy to build) and the latter is not. So it wasn’t a choice of toilets over telcom, it was a choice of having a cell phone or not having one. Those who got the phones have begun to find uses for it that go far beyond the obvious. For example, fishermen call in while at sea to find out which port is offering the best price for their catch, thus maximizing their profits.

In Market Research we are often blinded by our experience. Instead of viewing new market research technology for its potential, we view it through the lens of what we know. When web data collection arrived, many didn’t see the opportunities it offered and instead defensively dismissed it as being inferior to existing methods and only offered the benefits of being “cheap and fast”. After more than a decade, it amazes me how many still hold this belief.


“Cheap and Fast” alone are huge benefits that should have been embraced by all. If time or budget wouldn’t allow for a phone or mail study then clearly even a flawed web study would be better than nothing. Beyond that, one would think that other advantages such as the ability to show video or pictures and the ability to do complex choice modeling (yes you can do conjoint other ways, but at great expense and time) missing the end of the sentence here. It further should have been obvious that we could abandon our over-use of rating scales (often the only practical alternative for a phone study) in favor of ranking, MaxDiff and so on.

Too often the industry saw it as a choice between the new (web) and the old (mail, phone, door to door). The reality is that it is often not a choice between two things any more than Indians choose cell phones over indoor plumbing. Yes, the web has replaced a lot of work that would have been done using other means of data collection. But it has also been additive. The faster speed, lower cost and ability to do things we couldn’t do before have created opportunities.

As we evaluate the new technologies of today (mobile, webcam-enabled eye tracking, neuroscience) we would do well to ignore what we know and consider how these new tools might help us help our clients. Spending time comparing one to the other is no more productive than trying to develop a plumbing app for your cell phone. In the end we might still decide that the old methods are superior (there are still plenty of reasons to do phone studies), but I suspect if we truly focus on these technologies as opportunities rather than threats, we’ll adopt them faster and drive better results.

President, TRC

Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  


  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky Friday, 14 June 2013

    Well done Rich... I am in the middle of writing a paper for ESOMAR Congress this september in Istanbul on the subject of toilets and how we often misunderstand the true meaning of things. because we tend to be so subjectively driven and see things through the lens of our lives we get carried away with misdirections. for example we talk a lot of connected lives ... and it's true those mobile phones connect us in ways we had not thought of 10,5, 2, 1 year ago. But to many people the there is a pipeline of connectivity that they would give up their phones for ... iit's called a sewerage system. as you say as we we look at the new technologies we would do well to consider what they really mean and the difference they can make. let's not forget for many a mobile phone is an old technology, a toilet might
    be the innovation.

  • Ed Olesky
    Ed Olesky Thursday, 20 June 2013

    @Dave: thanks for the comments. I recently saw a post on Facebook that said something like this: "If someone came 30 years from that past what would most surprise them about life today?" The answer was, "that I carry a device in my pocket smaller than a pack of cigarettes which has access to virtually all of the collective knowledge of the world and yet mostly I use it to play words with friends."

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