Podcast Series

The Happy Market Research podcast publishes interviews with insight leaders on the last Tuesday of the month.

MrWeb Series – Graeme Lawrence of Join the Dots I InSites Consulting on Ways Agile Research Fails, and How to Ensure You Don’t

My guest today is Graeme Lawrence, Managing Partner at Join the Dots I InSites Consulting. Established in 1998, Join the Dots is a global consumer insight agency that helps companies make better business decisions through a deep understanding of people.

Find Graeme Online:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/graeme-lawrence-4b930a6/?originalSubdomain=uk 

Website: www.jointhedotsmr.com 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.com 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 

This Episode is in Partnership with MrWeb:

Website: www.mrweb.com 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/mrwebnews 

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.

Ep. 231 – MrWeb Series – Isaac Rogers of 20|20 Research on Benefits to Investing in ResearchOps Automation

My guest today is Isaac Rogers, CEO of 20|20 Research. Established in 1984, 20|20 believes in the power of giving consumers a voice, and has spent more than 30 years finding ways to simplify connections between brands and consumers, enabling the consumer to share their stories. Prior to joining 20|20 in 2008, 20|20 has developed methods and tools used worldwide for qualitative and hybrid research studies. 

Find Isaac Online:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/isaacrogers 

Website: www.2020research.com 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.com 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 

This Episode is in Partnership with MrWeb:

Website: www.mrweb.com 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/mrwebnews 

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.

Ep. 230 – Phil Ahad – How Insights are Being used Across all Functions, and the Changing role of Insights’ Platforms

My guest today is Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna. Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries. Prior to joining Toluna, Phil lead marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries, and has held senior-level positions at CoStar, AOL, and ComScore.

Find Phil Online:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/philahad

Website: www.toluna-group.com 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


On Episode 230, I’m interviewing Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna.  Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries. Prior to joining Toluna, Phil has led marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries and has held senior level positions at Costar, AOL and Comscore. Phil, thanks for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks for having me. 


I really want to start out and talk about the growth that we are seeing inside of the user experience and customer experience space. If you see like the ESOMR data, market research largely has been flat and yet you have these massive growth revenue numbers in the companies that are focusing on user experience and customer experience. I don’t know if you follow hashtags on LinkedIn; I pay a lot of attention to that. And so, just as a point of reference, market research is around 350,000 to 400,000 people that follow that hashtag whereas a user-experience research is around 4.5 million. So it’s crazy like the delta between the amount of people that are following these different trends and the attention they’re getting despite the fact that in a lot of ways they’re doing similar types of methodologies. Application might be different. Where they sit in the org structure is different. But, anyway, are you guys seeing this shift inside of your core customer base? Are you seeing there’s a…  You’ve got the market research lane dialed in. You guys have been around for two decades, solidly two decades. Are you seeing a growth in some of these other areas? 


It’s interesting, I think, if I look back in terms of the work we’ve done over the last two years, specifically the last year ‘cause market research is changing so quickly, it’s always been more focused in user experience or customer-experience testing in part of the NPD process. That’s a big chunk of…  Users want to consume, how they want to consume, how your customers are providing you feedback of this concept or of this product that’s in market. I see the uplift or let’s call it the buzz on user-experience and customer-experience testing as a term. We’re seeing Qualtrics being sold for x amount of billions, and they’re heavily focused on marketing their position as the CX platform.  And you see Medallia over the last month, their IPO was very successful. Again, pushing the customer experience, the word and buzzword in their marketing messaging. But for us, when the platform play and from the testing that we do, I mean it’s always been quite focused on it. Nothing’s really has changed. We have the platform; we have the technology; we have the methodology to provide this type of testing. It’s part of our research process; it’s part of our toolkit. 


I’m going to just try to story it a little bit. In, gosh, ‘98, ‘99, I was doing work with Intuit, in their in-house usability, right? And all I was doing was recruiting respondents to show up for onsite interviews. They were task-driven, etc., etc.  A lot of that has moved online or I should say not moved online, but it’s been augmented with online methodologies where people are given specific tasks to do and give feedback. User Story is a platform that does a good job of capturing that sort of feedback. And there’s a million different other platforms, right?  But one of the things that I’m really curious about is like the way that you’re framing your solution, is it slightly different to these (I’m going call them new researchers even though they’re established disciplines, like in UX) specifically as it relates with product development for example? That was a lot of words. Did that question make sense? Sorry.


I get what you’re saying. I mean for us we’re seeing a ton of innovation and a ton of new ways and new methodologies to conduct research and to get to where you need to get to make a business decision. For us, it’s not just a technology play, right? It’s not just we’re going to give you a survey tool, right? Or we’re going to give you an insights platform that’s going to allow you to automate the procurement of these insights so that you can make a decision faster. It’s a combination of both, right? The technology has to also adjust with the methodology, right? If we’re going to take an amazing tech stack—a tech stack that’s focused on automation, speed and visual reporting and insights—but we’re going to use dated methodology within that tech stack, you’re not going to improve your process. You’re not going to get there faster. You’re not going to make decisions faster. You’re not going to improve that NBD process faster. So for us it’s a combination of both things. And what we’re seeing from the new product development process from start to finish, we’re seeing more stages being infused to do some user testing, to do some customer-experience feedback. When we’re going from screening a bunch of ideas to actually going in and testing specific concepts to then seeing the feedback from the clients, we’re seeing more touch points, more pulse touch points from “let’s test the user experience and let’s test the feedback from the customer experience and let’s see if we’re on the right track”  because nowadays you can do so much more research with just about the same amount of budget. But in the past, you pretty much do like one research project and that will consume your budget for an entire quarter. Today you can do a hundred research projects within that one specific budget line. Does that make sense? 


Perfectly. So it’s a lot like you have the traditional market research buyer, which is still leveraging large or whatever market research firms for a big part of the actual day-to-day deliverables. But, at the same time, you’ve got the researcher or the product person that is sitting there on the floor trying to make a decision on this versus that, for example. And are you seeing those people leveraging market research tools like Toluna’s more and more? In other words, is that part of the customer shift that’s taking or augment that’s taking place?  Or is it still just in… Is the lane of winning just in the market research?


No, we’re definitely seeing a combination of both. And what we’re also seeing is the collapse within those businesses of those groups, right? It’s more so the product development team, the engineering team, the R&D team; they’re going to their research insights groups and they’re saying, “OK, we want to test these ideas.” It’s not as much as that they’re taking on this work themselves ‘cause it gets quite complicated. And now that we’re realizing these research teams have a way of stretching those budgets to do more than your typical like 200-question tracker once a quarter. They’re able to consume more work and they’re able to take on more work because it’s far more easier today to do a concept screening and then it was in the past and again it’s also a lot more budget-friendly to do that. So where we’re seeing today really the growth of our work… 

We’re doing a lot more pre-work than we had done in the past as opposed to just testing that specific concept and then maybe testing in a market. We’re screening actually 200 concepts a lot more down to a combination of like 10 to 15 that they potentially want to act on and then do the concept testing on. And then, we’re also seeing a lot more qual work throughout this process. So, you mentioned Intuit having more focus-group-type settings. We’re doing a lot more qualitative online qual work where we’ve gone through the screening process and maybe there was a one concept of these 50 or so that they’re screening internally they thought were killer, but it completely failed through the screening process. It is an easy way within our platform to pull the subset of those people who said they weren’t interested in it, pull into an online qual discussion and real time and then have a discussion on specifically what missed.  Maybe it was a communication thing. Maybe actually the idea really did suck, right? Or you know, maybe it’s different way of positioning it. So, we’re seeing of the entire process, more infusion of pulse, qualitative research and then a lot more infusion of qual discussions as we go through that process. 


That’s interesting. It sounds like one of the big shifts is this movement (I feel like it’s overused) but agile research. Right? So the integration of research alongside the day-to-day operations of the business informing things. I want to unpack that one-use case you just highlighted because I feel it’s fairly unique from my vantage point. It sounds like what I heard you say was you have a quant survey or equivalent and you’re getting feedback at scale and there’s a carve out of respondents that you’re interested in doing a deeper dive, qualitative-type assessment. Is there automation built into that workflow or are you pulling the list out and then just— not just—but and then doing the solicitation and scheduling with those individuals? 


Yeah, I believe, anyway, I’m biased because I work for the company. 


You know, that’s okay. 


Yeah, for me, I think one of our fastest growing products is something called Quick Communities, right? It’s integrated directly into our QuickSurveys platform. Quick Communities essentially, as basic as I’ll explain to you, it gives you the ability to have like a Skype conversation one-on-one or with a multiple group of people in real time. Right? So I can launch through the QuickSurveys platform and I can say, “You know what? Anyone who answered question one like this, question two like this or vice versa independently, at the end of the survey I want to recruit them into this qual discussion in real time.”  Now, I can set up that call discussion to happen immediately when the survey ends, or I can schedule it for tomorrow morning, whatever. The communication would be automatic to that specific respondent. As they’re going through the survey, they’ve qualified for it. At the end, I’ll say, “Congratulations, we’d like to actually ask you some more questions. Are you interested in joining this really quick chat?” And then it will direct them right into the chat and you can have that discussion right away. So this is completely DIY. You have the ability to set this up with the DIY user, or if you don’t have the time or you don’t have the moderation skills to do it, we can take on that work for you.  It’s how we empower our users. I think that one of our biggest differentiators is you can save money and it’s going to be faster because you’re doing it right and you’re doing it in real time or you spend a little more because you don’t have the resources at the time to do it yourself and the Toluna, the Harris Interactive teams can take it on and do it for you. 


So, that’s such an interesting…  I wish I could say I would have thought of that as the CEO of FocusVision ‘cause that would have been like a natural opportunity for connectivity. 


It wouldn’t be an easy the thing for any company to do, right? The company that can do this has to have an online community, so an engaging online panel and then technology built into it. Right? So for us it’s a natural thing ‘cause all of our quick surveys go directly to the Toluna panel network, to Toluna.com. That’s 68 different markets, right? So the person is taking the survey on the panel site, right? And then, they’re already registered. They’ve already opted in: we already have demographic information right there. We’re already double opted into this thing. So then they’re not leaving that environment when they need to go into this qual discussion. It’s part of the panel, right? So it’s a great idea. But if you don’t have that panel, that online community panel site, and then you don’t have the technology and the survey engine and the moderation tools to do it, it’d be a really difficult thing because then you’re going to recruit people into an online qual. Like if I was going to send a survey to Lucid and I’m getting panel, now, when I have an online discussion, I’m going to have to send a landing page to register that online community and go through that process. And that’s where you’re going to lose a ton of people. 


All right. Well, I mean, you’ve kind of alluded to this point that I wanted to get to, which is centric to the roll-ups that have been happening.  P2Sample recently, we did a big announcement, right? Dynata obviously: we’ve talked about that one before on the show. Probably the biggest piece of M&A news in the last, I don’t know, forever, maybe since Greenfield Online went public in whatever year that was 2001 or 2002 or 2003, I guess. But anyway, with all of these roll-ups that are happening, is this a threat or an opportunity from your vantage point for a company like Toluna? 


Obviously, I’m going to say it’s an opportunity, but all of these changes in the market have to be followed, and we have to identify what is that going to mean to us in the competitive landscape of things. I think it’s an opportunity because for us it’s stability, right?  We’re investing heavily in our technology platform. We’re investing heavily in our panel. At the moment, our attention isn’t being moved away because we’re going to plan for an IPO or we need to get acquired or we need an investment or we need funding. So that’s where I see it’s a strength for us ‘cause it’s just how stable we’ve been over the past two years with a lot of unrest within the market and a lot of other companies eating each other up. Now, to be upfront and honest too, we’re always looking to acquire companies that fit our mission and fit the things that we’re trying to do from a panel situation, from a technology situation, like niche player in the market. Because we do so much ourselves, we tend to rather build than buy, but with so many new advancements and technologies, and so many niche players in the space, we’re always looking to see if there’s a natural fit for us in terms of what we’re trying to do from a research and an insight standpoint. 


I mean that’s interesting because there’s a host of companies that have been entering the space since Qualtrics did their big announcement. Right.  So, for example, I don’t know if you’ve been following this thread on my LinkedIn, but we’ve recently enrolled in startup school, which is part of Y Combinator.  It’s the largest accelerator for tech-based startups globally. There’s 23,000 companies that are in our cohort. I mean it’s an insane number. Now, there’s only a small fraction that are inside of the insight space. But the broader point is that there’s a massive amount of growth that is happening inside of this startup or the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And I’m seeing a lot of new entrants even in the last six months inside that technology entrants’ center specifically that are trying to leverage in.  And it’s interesting ‘cause they don’t come with the baggage that I have as a market research professional: kind of this grandfatherly point of view. But they’re connecting to a (I call it the new researcher), which is everybody inside of the organization. I had the head of product on the show last week, Rian for Postmark, which is basically an email service for apps. It’s widely utilized. And he was saying, “Yeah, like it’s a do or do-not. There is no try organizationally for research.” Everybody has to be doing at some level of consumer interaction in order for us just to maintain truth of the consumer point of view. So, when you’re thinking about M&A, ‘cause you’re right, you guys have historically “built” versus “buy,” do you think that could be part of the narrative for Toluna? 


I mean for sure. And the Qualtrics acquisition last year to me was…  I mean it’s great news for the industry ‘cause, of course, it’s going to open up a bunch of really smart, young and up-and-coming engineers to invest in this space. Historically in the past, no research company has been acquired for any type of value like that, especially X over revenue, right?  That valuation and that acquisition is typical technology and to have that in the market research space is, obviously, that’s why you have 23,000 people starting up. It’s going to be great for us ‘cause there’s going to be these niche players who come and think about things in a completely different way than the historical researcher.  And when I joined Toluna almost over seven years ago, and although I had a stint at Comscore, I told myself when I was at Comscore… It was a long time ago, right? I was like, “I’ll never work in market research again. It’s just like why?” Obviously, I came to Toluna because of the uniqueness of the opportunity, but coming in fresh and not coming in with 10 years of market research baggage and coming in with 10 years of like, “This is how I’ve always done it, so I’m going to always do it this way,”  I was quite disruptive here. And I hired people who didn’t come from market research to lead products and lead innovation or lead ideas ‘cause, again, they’re disrupting the standard. When we purchased Harris Interactive, it was the same thing. And I was like, “Why are we doing it this way?” “Because we’ve always done it that way.” “Do you really need to have like 17 nested quotas to do a survey on popsicles? “I don’t know. I don’t think so, right?” This is kind of like we’re out. We need to… 


Only 17! 


We need to really, really push for change in the industry and not because we want to. It’s because our clients demand it. We talk about speed, and we talk about costs. Well, traditional research is expensive. New research doesn’t have to be.  I’d rather have a hundred different ways of looking at one thing than just one way of looking at it because I had to add a stick to a budget or I had to stick to a specific time. Right. And I believe this is where we’re at today and we’re going to get consumed with data, right? And data, multiple different data points and multiple different ways of doing something to collect the data points so that you can result in a business action is going to be the future, right?

 Well, it is a future today, right? And, actually, how we consume the data—and I think this is where the next innovation has to come—is that we’ve got DMP data; you’ve got stated data; you’ve got third party data; you got cookie-tracking data; you got behavioral tracking data. There’s so many different sources, right? And the aggregator of these data sources, who makes it clean and easy, so that you can look to the data right away and you can get what you need to make from business decision and then act on it—that’s where we have to invest in right now.  I mean the companies that I’ve started to talk to just fresh into the space, the ideas, this is what they’re focused on right now. So the aggregators of the data are going to be the real future. Building another survey tool and building a different way to ask a question—How much more different ways can we do that? So that’s what from an M&A standpoint, that’s kind of where my focus is at the moment. 


So, really quick, you guys have actually in a lot of ways…  So, I went through the join process of your panel in preparation for our meeting today, your Influencer Panel, and the initial framework for that is completely different than I’ve ever seen, joining a panel.  Maybe I’ve joined 20 panels, I don’t know. But not like all of them. But having said that, I mean it is a very unique, interactive experience where somehow, and I don’t exactly know and I’ve tried to reverse…  In my head with my team, even sat down, “Gosh, you know, this is really interesting. How can you reverse engineer that?” But it’s a very unique experience. So anyway, sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. My broader point is that we are still seeing innovation in the checkbox space. 


I’m not trying to state that…  I just think we need to do things differently, right?  We just can’t rely on, “Ask this and tell me this.” And then back to that, right.  It’s going to have to be a combination of different data sources and for us too, that panel experience is going to be critical for us moving forward. Right?  As they’re joining and as a collective, we need to give them the most relevant surveys or the most relevant projects possible: one – they’re interested in ‘cause then they’re going to leave. Right? We can’t hold people’s attention anymore for 30 minutes. It’s like impossible.  Some groups of people, you could pay them $100 and they’re not going to take a survey for 30 minutes. Right? So we’ve got to figure out a different way that we can engage with panelists, within consumer panelists to collect information that we need to drive business decisions. Right? And there’s going to be a multitude of different ways of doing this, not just from mobile and not just from online surveys, right? It’s from data collection; it’s from combination of sources of what we’ve seen from…  The stuff from DMP is going to help us make these decisions too. So that’s where my mind is at right now; where the team’s mind is that is what are the other different ways that we can collect data, collect consumer data, keep the experience positive and keep these people in the system. 


Yeah, it’s a drum that I’ve been beating a lot over my career, which is the more data sources that you can integrate into your consumer story, then one – the more compelling the story is and two – the more accurate it’s going to be because you’re not just biased with your lens or the self-reported lens of the average consumer. It’s really interesting. But as I keep thinking, kind of finishing the thought relative to your M&A thesis, are you thinking that part of a thesis is more bent on technology versus customer size, customer book size? 


You mean panel size or…? 


Yeah, no, sorry.  Are you guys thinking more or do you have more interest in interesting technologies that are kind of outside of the box touching other non-traditional buyers? Or is it like the typical (and I don’t mean this in a bad way), but the typical kind of like looking at Dynata buying SSI, right? So, in that case, more of a financial consideration was a major part of the thesis because of cost reduction. 


I wouldn’t disregard any opportunity. If I look at the things that we can do internally versus the things that would be harder or more costly, obviously, there’s a lot of interest in some really innovative and niche technology that either we never thought about.  So that interests me, right? And we’re passionate about these things. So, we were the first company to buy a digital tracking technology. We bought it from Nielsen four years ago now. So, we’ve always prided ourselves about being ahead of the game, especially from a market-research technology standpoint. But right now, we’ve got excellent technology, in-house built technology to manage and run panels. We’re improving our panel experience across mobile, across the site, across digital tracking. We’ve got an excellent B2B consumer insights platform to procure this data and organize this data. 

So from end to end, I think from a foundational standpoint, we’re really strong. So, would I be interested in buying another Toluna-type or like an SSI-type? No, probably not. But again, I don’t make those decisions, but I got to report to X and to the board and to Frederic…“Oh, no, sample x company’s proven for us.” So, he’s going to make that decision. But these are just my recommendations.  For me, I’d rather continue to invest in what we’re doing. We’ve got 200 product and engineering staff across the world, who are focused on this. It’s not enough in my opinion. We’ve got a good amount of people, and they’re really smart, and they’re really hungry, and they’re energized about what they can do within market research. So yeah, I’d like to really focus on those niche technologies that are out there that could transform the way you digest and then react to data. But again, if the right panel company or if the right survey company comes into play that makes sense from us and make sense for our team then, yeah, why not? 


You guys have been doing a lot in the way of—and I don’t mean to like sound all infomercially fanboyish here but, just practically speaking—a lot in the way of innovating the respondent experience. I assume framing out the Influencer versus a traditional respondent or people that take surveys, that’s psychologically a really interesting shift for me.  I’m sure you don’t have the statistics off the top of your head, but I imagine you guys have been paying attention to things like retention and engagement and that sort of thing. Are you seeing this reframing of the respondent as an Influencer having a material lift in terms of their long-term stickiness? 


We went through a reorganization.  I’m not sure if you were aware of that, but one of the reorganizations… 


I’m not.  


is we took over…  Our panel team historically has been tied with the operations team, right? And what we did was we took the panel team and now we’ve combined it with the product team and the marketing team, right? ‘Cause in our eyes now, (so this is all heads up) it’s all now falls under a digital group, which I lead, right? So, panel, product, and marketing are all aligned because, in my opinion, without the panel, our products really don’t… They’re nothing special, right? 


That’s right. It’s an empty house.


Yeah. The combination of these two things make us incredibly unique and powerful in the spaces.  We can do really cool and creative things like integrate a Quick Community, a qual-online-function chat within our QuickSurveys platform, right? Because if you’re just a survey tool, then you’re one of 25 other survey tools. They’re all great survey tools, right? The uniqueness is that immediate access to a panel and then online panel that’s in 68 markets.  Now, we’re collecting 1 million completes every single day. So, we ask about retention rates and lifetime values. Since we integrated these teams, and I took over the panel team, I have been absolutely obsessed with this ‘cause there’s no bigger waste in my mind than sending people into a router, into your survey engine and having them go through 10 minutes until they get to a complete. And in this day and age, when we know so much about people, it makes no sense that I’d send them into a blind survey that I know after 10 questions, it’s going to have a screen out.  This is something that we’re still challenged with today; this is an industry challenge. 

So the things that we’re focused on right now is that we’ve got so much profile data on people, whether it be stated, claimed, whether it be tracked, whether it be through a DMP, that we need to do a better job when we’re putting a project out to our panelists:  that we understand what that project is so that I’m not just saying, “OK, I’m throwing 10,000 starts at a project to get to 1000 completes.” We know that there’s going to be a screen out, and we know that this person will get screened. There’s no point to send them out to the firing squad. Right? So, for me, the biggest improvement in a panel experience is getting them to complete because let’s be honest, they’ve joined this panel to get rewarded, right? And if they’re not getting rewarded, then we’ve wasted their time, and they’re not going to come back. So although we’ve done historically a really good job with this, we can do far better. And our focus right now is to have the best panel experience from start to finish. And it helps that our router is built and owned by us too. So, we can play these mechanisms; we can play these games with within the system. So, first-time joiner gets high IR studies, gets shorter studies. They get into the process of being in a panel slowly as opposed to a person who’s been in our panel for over a year and is getting hammered with 10 survey invites a day. Well, they’re used to that, right? So different segmentations of our panelists get different types of experiences, and those experiences are tailored to what we know about them. And then they’re getting rewarded and they’re providing their feedback and they’re providing quality feedback then. 


Yeah, it’s like AI-enabled or machine-learning-enabled routing, right? You have access to my Google docs. I have a half-written white paper on your true LOI (Length Of Interview). Excuse me. And my thesis is that, on average, somebody that goes to the router is going to be disqualified seven times. In other words, the eighth time on average, they’re going to get into a qualifying survey, and they’ve probably answered the same six questions in each one of those screenings. Right. And so, you could be looking at upwards of six to nine minutes that the person’s already been just going through a qualification process, which has a psychological impact on your willingness to be receptive to new ideas and overall fatigue, etc., etc. 


It’s going to have a direct impact on quality too, because then they just make stuff up to hope to get qualified. 


Right. Just got to get through this. I’ve already given you eight minutes that I’m never going to get back. 


Exactly.  So, to me like the panel experience and lifetime value of panels isn’t just going to be one thing, right? It’s going to be a multitude of things:  how engaging in the surveys are. And you’re right. If we’re going to ask the same six questions over and over again to collect demographic information and profiling information, that’s a terrible experience for anyone of our panelists.  This is why we actually append this information. If we have that information and you’re asking for it, we don’t ask the panelists for it. It skips. So I think we’re doing a lot of the right things, but I think still just like every other company right now in the space, there’s so much that we can improve on. And this is really what we’re investing in right now. We’ve rebuilt our entire router mechanism this year, right? We’ve rebuilt; we’re collecting profiling attributes and how we’re leveraging profile attributes in projects, not just from our DIY platform but even from our project and field management teams.  Like how they’re integrating or how they’re using the profiles to get projects done, we’ve revamped that entire process too. So this year, I’d say, we’ve really changed our entire mindset of how we’re not just managing the panel, but how we’re leveraging and using the panel. 


I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this whole…  We’ve seen massive disruption. Zoom had their S-1. I’m sure you had a peek at it. Insane growth in a completely saturated marketplace that had a very, very dominant Citrix site, I think, owned by Oracle.  Just dominant players and entrenched, and yet Zoom comes out with massive growth with 160 some odd percent. It’s just insane: the revenue numbers etc. You’ve got Superhuman, which is a sexy startup. We don’t know what the revenue numbers are, but everything about them says they’re going to be a big deal. They are basically just a better email client that sits on top of Gmail.  Anyway, obviously, Slack that everybody is using and familiar with. When you think about like Toluna, which is a storied, 20-year-old veteran in the industry, what are the three big challenges that you, as a chief digital officer, have to address? How do you maintain that tension between the established versus making sure that you don’t lose sight of the next big thing? 


I don’t think we’re that established at all, even though for a 20-year company or a 50-year company, right. The companies that stay ahead of these games or that are on top of innovation are constantly figuring out ways to innovate the norm or just what our clients need. So, you know, Qualtrics is 20-year company, right? And now everyone thinks of them as THE technology player in the space.  For us and it’s been proven by our growth and our revenue, our digital portfolio business is up 70%, each one versus each one last year. Right.  


Wow! Congratulations. 


Thank you. Our adoption of our technology, actually, is the easiest thing for us to sell right now. And it’s not because the technology is amazing, right. And it’s not because the panel’s great.  And it’s not because our service team is awesome and worldwide and are on 24 hours. It’s a combination of all three of these things. Right. And for us right now, it’s continued investment in these three buckets because weren’t really focused on…  Automation and agile insights is the thing right now. It’s been the thing right now. And while we can easily do that, it’s not going to be the single one thing that drives your growth or drives your adoption of clients because at some point they want automation, but, in some cases, the work doesn’t fit an automated solution. There has to be some attributes to that. And having that ability to allow your clients to choose rather than forcing your clients in a single solution that you offer is going to be what’s driving growth. So I’m really more focused on how we can be agile to our client needs, but at the same time ensuring costs and ensuring speed. 

If we’ve got to infuse our research team into the process to get something done for Colgate or Unilever or Coke or Pepsi or whatever, how we can pull them in quickly enough by using our own technology internally and then next time training them to how to use it themselves and then they can save more money and then giving them the ability to decide, “OK, I can take this on myself and save money or I’m going to pass it onto the Toluna and Harris services teams to do it for me ‘cause I don’t have the time or the resources.” That to me is how we’re going to continue to encore growth. I think as you go back to your point on staying at the forefront of innovation, you mentioned three things. I can’t really think of three things off the top of my head. 


Well, it’s not a test. That’s fine. 


For me, the way we build and the way we plan for our roadmaps within our engineering and product teams, most of the time it’s reacting to client needs and changes in the industry.  When we want a Quick Communities or online qual where we want to integrate digital tracking into our system, it isn’t because one person in our team is like, “Oh I got a great idea.”  No, it’s a combination of testing and working directly with clients. Like everyone in our product team is exposed to clients on a consistent basis. They’re not just sitting in a corner in a box and just building whatever it comes to their minds, right? We put them in front of clients on purpose ‘cause we really need to understand the client need. And if you ask a client how they want to do concept testing in the future, they’re going to always give you the same answer, but that’s not how we’re going to do it because that’s not…  They just want to faster, right? So we need to come out at a different angle to solve for that specific need. So, within our planning process, a lot of stuff is maintenance; a lot of stuff is enhancements. But then we always parse out 15% to 20% of our time on forward-thinking innovation, on testing new things, concepts and testing new ideas. And we have a team that’s constantly focused on understanding the landscape, not just of the market research landscape, but of other industries to see if there’s anything that we can take from there and then adopt into our technology stack and then to see if that’s going to be sticky and move forward.

So that’s how we’re trying to attempt to stay at the forefront of innovation. Now the problem is we’re a company and because of the way Frederic operates too, he LOVES to do new things, right? He loves testing new ideas, and he’s constantly pushing us to test new ideas. But at some point, you get to a situation where while you’re going to have like 35 products to manage, and that gets really difficult.  And you might even get to a riskier situation where you’re just average at 30 different things, right? Or even 10 different things. So try to stay focused on what we’re really, really good at, which is this NPD research flow from testing start to finish and then trying to parse out some time for really focusing on innovative new technologies to infuse that process is kind of where we’re at right now. 


You think like part of the…  As I reflect on my time in FocusVision, I’ve often wondered if I would have been better off having the individual brands maintain autonomy—kind of like the Google to YouTube, right—versus the single umbrella. I’m not second guessing my decisions. I just wonder, “Oh, would that have been an interesting…?”  Do you think that that sort of framework, is that something that you guys think has a place in the future or is it more of the just the bigger bolt-on brand? 

Yeah, I don’t know. I think it really depends on the environment and the solutions. And right now, we’re literally managing three brands at the moment, right?  We got a Toluna brand, a Harris brand and we’ve got the KuRun brand in China. And the more brands you kind of throw into it, the more expensive it gets to manage, especially from marketing standpoint too. So, if it fits, Harris Toluna from a solution standpoint, then it makes sense to roll it onto one of those brands at the moment. If it’s completely unique, then it justifies it being a standalone brand if it’s got a really niche following too, I think those are decisions that we make, but I don’t think there’s one right way or the other. For us, for right now, I’d love to just continue to manage the three that we have rather than adding another layer into it. But again, if the situation calls for it, then that’s what we’ll do. 


Yeah, it’s all about those auditable.  Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. So automation, big deal. I’m thinking about the one-use case that you highlighted already, which is this integrated qualitative follow-up into a survey.  We’re seeing automation continue to drive positive outcomes for both the end-user of the research, but then also the financial considerations or the multiples for the market research companies. What are, I’ll say three, but it doesn’t have to be three. A few, how’s that? What are a few…  three? OK, give me three tips. Give the listeners three tips that they should consider when thinking about bringing automation into their workflows. 


Yeah, for us right now, it’s what your goal is for the program ‘cause to me automation comes in so many different aspects of it. Like you take full end-to-end automation, like one of our power modules, which is a completely closed box for concept testing, right? It’s an automated template. It’s automated reporting, it’s automated sampling. It’s literally end-to-end automation. You’re telling the technology, “I want to do this concept test against three to nine assets and to millennials or to a group of people.” And then the technology takes it:  Literally, it’s a five-minute set up and your research is out there. To me, that works for a lot of our clients who do a lot of standardized testing, who do the same type of concept-testing survey over and over again. Right? But if you need to add a wrinkle to it and if you need some sort of customization to it, then it won’t work because, again, it’s a closed box. So what we’re seeing is clients want a blend of that. They want maybe like half of it or a percentage of the questions to be standard all the single time, but they then want to give their researchers or the consumer-insights team some flexibility to add out-of-the-box questions or if it’s specific to that concept or that product or that use case, they want to add some questions to it. So, once you start to customize the automated platform, it gets less and less automated. For us right now, the focus is, “OK, what’s the in-between?  Is it completely customized, which we know takes time? Right? And if it’s completely automated, we know it’s incredibly limited. So what’s that halfway point and that’s what we’re testing right now too. So really understanding the client need ‘cause some clients can fit in one or two of those different spectrums, but most clients now are fitting in the middle, right? They want x amount of completely automated and then they want the ability to do custom stuff to it. And this is what we’re providing within our platform today: You can take the standardized, completely automated function, pull it out of its box, and then just take bits and pieces of it and then do a blended approach to it. 


It’s kind of like Goldilocks, right? So, I think you’re right.  You almost have to have the three beds or the DIY, the fully do-it-for-me highly customized. But then also that layer in between.  You need to have the squishiness to accommodate for the hybrid approaches, which, I agree with you, actually I think is becoming more and more part of the need in the market. 


The challenge is that actually we’re facing today—well, not as a challenge—but the challenge we’re getting from C-levels at some of these brands is, “I don’t actually don’t want my consumer-insights teams to have a completely open system to do whatever they want,”  ‘cause like, you know, the CI team for detergents versus CI team for like handheld soap or whatever or different markets, CI in Italy versus CI in the UK, it might be testing the same products, but because they can do whatever they want, the methodology would be different. And it might test amazing in the UK, but really poorly in Italy because of how the test was conducted. So they’re pushing for standardization, which is great for us because that’s kind of what we do anyway. Right. But then when it actually gets into field to those specific teams, then those specific teams are, “Well, no, ‘cause it’s a different market. There’s some local things that we’ve got to ask or it also won’t make sense.”  Like what they’re testing in the UK may not necessarily make any sense to what they’re testing in Italy. And that’s kind of our challenge. Like how far can you give them an open box versus a closed box to what meets their business needs and each one of these different markets.


Congratulations on your success year over year. 70% is no joke. So, yeah, that is huge. I’m very excited about hearing more about the products that you guys are launching, and I’m hoping that you release a white paper on the stickiness factor for respondents given your pre-post positioning of the Influencer thing. I think that’d be really interesting. 


Maybe you can let me know when you’re ready, and we can collaborate on it. 


Oh, good. Yeah, don’t totally, I would love that. That’d be awesome actually. For sure. I’m going to coordinate that with Janice. So my guest today has been Phil Ahad, Chief Digital Officer at Toluna. Thank you, Phil, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks, Jamin.  Take care. 


Everybody else, f you enjoyed this episode, please time screenshot, share it. I would greatly appreciate it. It helps other insight professionals like you find this content. As always, your five-star review is greatly appreciated it. Have a wonderful rest of your day. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   

Have a great rest of your day.

Ep. 229 – Jon Picoult – Tactical Ways to Build Credibility for Personal and Business Success

My guest today is Jon Picoult, Founder and Principal of Watermark Consulting. Founded in 2008, Watermark Consulting offers consulting services to top brands around improving customer experience. Prior to founding Watermark Consulting, Jon served in leadership roles at both MassMutual Financial Group and American International Group. He holds a degree in Cognitive Science from Princeton University and an MBA from Duke University. 

Find Jon Online:



Website: watermarkconsult.net

CX ROI Study: watermarkconsult.net/cx-roi

Find Us Online: 

Social Media: @happymrxp


Website: happymr.com

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


On Episode 229, I’m interviewing Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. I’ve got to say this is a marquee episode for Happy Market Research podcast. I have referenced Watermark Consulting’s report on their analytics over the last 10 years of the S&P 500 overperformers and underperformers. The one central theme: Overperformers all leverage customer experience, whereas under-performers are laggards. They are not leveraging it. We are seeing mainstay companies, CBRE and others, who have historically not really had research as a primary function in the organization, but they’re all investing in our field. This is an exciting episode. I know you will find a lot of value in it, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. Founded in 2008, Watermark Consulting offers consulting services to top brands around improving customer experience. Prior to founding Watermark Consulting, Jon has served in leadership roles at both Mass Mutual Financial Group and American International Group. He holds a degree in cognitive science from Princeton University and an MBA from Duke University. Jon, thanks for joining me today on the Happy Market Research Podcast. 


Hi, Jamin, glad to be here.


I have referenced your work on the show probably at least in five to ten episodes. I have also talked about your work at two talks I gave and then also in the industry and then also I teach an MBA course and I reference your work in that MBA course. I’m going to Michigan State; I’m on the board for their Masters in Market Research Program. I’ll be there next week. I’ll be talking about Watermark Consulting and specifically your report. I’m going to be diving in deep on this report on this particular podcast. That’s why pursued you so hard to be on it; so, thanks very much for joining me. But before I do, I’ve got to get to know you a little bit. Our audience likes to get to know you a little bit.  So we’re going to start with our patent question, if you will. Tell us a little bit about your parents, where you grew up, and how that’s informed your career. 


So, I grew up on Long Island in New York.   And my mom was a nursery school teacher; my dad was a Wall Street securities analyst covering stocks for insurance companies. And as far as how their upbringing informed my career, I guess I’d say that seeing my dad come home every night dressed up, suitcase in hand, kind of was my first exposure to the business world. I think that I sort of thought, “Well, Gee, that’s what I want to do.”  I even insisted to my parents back when I was in elementary school, I insisted on taking one of my dad’s old Samsonite briefcases and carrying my school supplies and my books and whatnot in a Samsonite briefcase. In hindsight, God knows what my teachers and my fellow students were thinking when they saw me…


Probably thought this guy just bought some stocks.


…tote that in elementary school. I mean really, but yeah, that was that was my upbringing. 


How old were you when, I assume you made some side money somehow working for your parents’ allowance, something along those lines? 


So actually, I did a lot of lifeguarding. That was my primary job in summers and whatnot and in winters too in indoor pools.  Did a little internship for my dad here and there. But where I really got the business bug, if you’re interested in knowing, was in college.  I wanted to DJ for the college radio station at Princeton where I went. The radio station was actually a commercial station, so a little bit different than other college stations in that it didn’t receive any money from the university. It was all self-supported through advertising sales. So, I’m the low person on the totem pole. And I said, “Hey, I want to get a show.” And there are tons of people vying for shows. They said, “Oh, yeah, you can have a show. You just need to bring in the money. If you bring in advertising sales, you’re going to be in a much better position to get a show.”  And so, actually, that was my first entree into business really was door-to-door radio advertising sales. And it’s actually where I first kind of got this taste of customer experience and understanding how the experience that you provide to people, even before they’re a customer, even during a sales interaction, how all of the elements of that experience can really do wonders in terms of helping to cultivate a relationship with people. And so, that was my first foray into true business. And I’m happy to tell you that I brought in a lot of ad sales and got a prime radio slot, a Sunday night oldies show is what it was called, 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM, prime spot on college radio.  And yeah, that was it. 


You know, if you decide you need another side hustle, we could use some help on advertising revenue on the show. I’m just kidding. 


That’ll be my fallback opportunity. 


So, did you buy any stocks growing up? 


I remember that my parents bought me some stock here and there.  When I first became of an age where I can invest myself, I was actually a mutual fund kind of guy. So, I shied away from buying individual stocks and was more schooled in sort of the idea of just diversification and so, yeah, I bought into mutual funds but started at a very early age and, yeah, so.. 


I’m fishing here, and what I’m really looking for is like you had some very good jobs. You’re in both places for quite awhile, right? Just under a decade. And yet you decided in 2008 to leave and start a consultancy, which is certainly in the early years, everybody knows that’s a saw blade of emotion, right? From the ups and downs, based on winning projects and delivering its projects. When did you decide that you were going to step out and start a consultancy?


So, I had always had an interest in putting out my own shingle. I think that that was just something that was inside of me all along even though I was spending my whole career in the corporate ranks, in large companies, no less. But I was always intrigued by the idea of putting out my own shingle in terms of having the ability to work on what really interested me the most and focus and build a business in a way that I thought it should be built and to have really complete control over that, which is not something, despite your best efforts, that you have when you’re working in a large organization. And so, in 2008, the opportunities sort of arose in that the company I was working at…  I had been hired by the CEO of the company. He left that company. A new CEO came in, wanted to choose their own team, which, of course, everybody has the right to do. And so, I saw the writing on the wall. And at that point, remember what was going on in the U.S. at that time: that was when the financial crisis was really bubbling up and at its height. And so, while I thought about looking for other executive opportunities at that time, I said to myself, “Well, Gee, you know, until I find the right opportunity, let me put that shingle out; let me get started. And it might just be a way to sort of bide my time until the next executive opportunity comes that appeals to me. Or maybe it’ll be actually a long-term endeavor.”  And it turned out to be the latter. And I’m very glad that that’s the way that it went. 


Who was your first customer? 


My first customer. The company, it was Marsh & McLennan. 


Not too bad. 


No, not too bad. And, actually, it was business that came through a connection that I had developed earlier in my career — the value of networking, of course. But yeah, that was my first customer, and it was a great customer to have, obviously, a name people would recognize.


Yeah, no kidding. And it’s nice being able to get to revenue is really important. But then I guess to the other point of it:  the validation that that creates or the social trust that that creates when you have that name behind you is a big lift to the business and you personally. 

Yeah. And actually, I tell this to people who I talked to who are interested in starting their own businesses and being an entrepreneur. And I tell them that when I first launched my company, what I realized was the number one priority had to be building credibility, particularly if you’re a boutique consultancy that’s trying to work in the same market as much bigger entities and, obviously, landing a marquee client helps in terms of building that credibility. But, quite honestly, for probably nine months when I first launched the company, my focus was purely on writing and speaking because I decided that was the best way to build credibility in terms of people — right or wrong, when people see you up on a podium, when they see your name in print and that you’re authoring articles and whatnot — right or wrong, it adds credibility. Hopefully, if you have something meaningful and valuable to say to them on that podium or in that article they’ll walk away feeling like, “Okay, this is a credible player.”  And that actually was my focus for nearly a year before even landing a single client was just building that brand, if you will, and that credibility so that people would take Watermark seriously. 


Yeah. I, obviously, completely subscribe to that point of view. It’s really a one-sided value exchange, right? So it’s you contributing to a market that, eventually, you are going to be able to have some level of harvest, but you just have to have faith as you’re going through that process that, at some point, it does turn up favorable to you. What kept you going? Cause that’s a long time to be contributing. It’s hard to do that discipline and not get the sort of instant gratification because social media at this point was still very early. So you didn’t have like all the thumbs up and likes, although I guess Tumbler and whatnot were trending at that point. So you, maybe you did get that sort of gratification on a short-term basis. But anyway, how did you keep the intestinal fortitude, as my grandfather used to say?


Yeah, this might be unique to me, but you talk about the delayed gratification. There was actually some instant gratification for me because I enjoyed writing and speaking very much. I continue to enjoy that to this day. And so, merely getting published. I remember the first time I had an article published in the New York Times. That was tremendous gratification. And the first time I landed a big speech in front of a large group…  So, even though there was an alternative objective, a longer-term objective in terms of credibility building there, personally for me, it was actually very gratifying to accomplish those things. And so, that definitely kept me engaged through the course of the journey. 


That’s awesome. So, tell me about a specifically difficult or a material challenge that you have overcome either personally or professionally. 


What we were just talking about, that would pretty much be it ‘cause starting a new company is a steep climb to begin with.  Starting a new company in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the depression increases the difficulty of the dive. And so, I look back and say without question, that was the biggest challenge that I probably had professionally in terms of just overcoming that, given the headwinds, given the environment that I was operating in. 


So was the worst possible time to try to start a business. Anyway, I just finished talking with a few guests centric to user experience.  Our space is so interesting because nomenclature is really, really important: the words that we use to describe things. So we have these casts, right? We’ve got like market research that fits some place inside of the corporate kind of ecosystem. You’ve got user-experience research that fits there and, and you also have customer experience.  And, if you look at Google trends, you’ll see there’s an inverse relationship over the last ten years between market research and customer experience, which is very eyebrow-raising for me. We were talking about this a little bit at the beginning of the show. There’s this new group of researchers that are coming in and they might not… Market research feels a little bit, just being honest, it feels like maybe a little bit…  Not a lot of people know what it is, and it feels a little bit old school, whereas customer experiences is something that’s gotten a lot of attention in the media over the last couple of years. And you definitely see that from a Google analytics perspective. So, tell us from your perspective, what is customer experience? 


So, if I had to give you just sort of a phrase to define that, I’d say customer experience is really how customers FEEL about their interactions with your company or how they feel about their interactions with you. And it’s worth just unpacking that definition a bit because when we talk about the word “interactions,” how they feel about their interactions with your company, it’s very broad. Those interactions really encompass every live, digital and print encounter that they have with you through the entire customer life cycle, even before they’re a customer. The experience begins before somebody is even a customer. I’d argue the experience actually persists longer than many people would expect. You hope you never have a customer that defects from your company but, if they do, I would submit to you that that’s a touch point that deserves to be managed as carefully and intentionally as any other in your customer life cycles. So the “interactions” word is really very broad, and I think many people don’t understand that, particularly those, for example, who think customer service is synonymous with customer experience. Customer service is really just but one component, just the way user experience is but just one component of customer experience. So the word “interactions” is important to understand. And then, the second word really to unpack is this word “feel,” how they “feel” about their interaction. A lot of the behavior that you cultivate in people that is repurchase behavior or recommending behavior, referral behavior, it’s really driven largely by their emotional response to the experience as opposed to their rational response. As the behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman once said, it’s the emotional tail that wags the rational dog. That is true in customer experience.  And so, it’s not, for example, about how fast you answer the phone. It’s not about how quickly you turn around that quote. Those are all elements of it. But it’s that visceral reaction that people have, the emotional reaction that is, ultimately, what is going to drive their engagement with you. So that word “feel” is very important. And then the last word I’d highlight in the definition is the word “customer.” How customers feel about their interactions with your company. It’s important to understand that that word “customer” also needs to be defined very broadly. Sometimes, the customer might be an individual consumer; sometimes, it might be a business if you’re in a B to B business; sometimes, the customer might be a distributor where you’re trying to get shelf space or trying to somehow circulate your product; sometimes, the customer is a colleague that’s just down the hall from you or one of your employees. And I think that the techniques that companies use to engineer a great customer experience can actually be applied to all of these different constituencies not only in terms of engaging individual consumers, but even engaging employees at a company or job candidates ‘cause their customers in a sense. You’re serving them; they’re interested in applying for a job and… 


Glassdoor, Glassdoor, right.  Glassdoor is a…  


Right, right, yeah, sure. So that’s really how I would describe customer experience. The term “user experience” is, I think, that’s a very important part of the customer experience. But again, it is just one part.  And the market research piece, I think that is also part of the customer experience in the sense that, if you’re trying to deliver a great experience to your customers, what’s really important is to deliver a relevant experience. When I look at the companies that are legends in this regard, there are a number of key principles that I’ve identified that they do exceptionally well. And one is that they create a very relevant experience for people: something that’s pertinent, something that resonates with them both rationally and emotionally. If you want to understand what’s relevant to your customers, you need to cultivate insight, and market research and customer research is a key way of doing that. 


I need to rename the show.   


Do I get credit for that?


Yeah, you will definitely get credit for it. It’s something that I’ve really struggled with, to be honest, because I, growing up in the 90s inside of primary research, we really didn’t have a customer experience as a set-aside discipline that I was exposed to. I’m sure it existed. And now, in every way, it’s eclipsed market research from a visibility perspective. 


It has become sort of buzzwordy, which is a bad thing I’d argue. One thing that that troubles me is that the word, the term “customer experience” gets thrown around a lot in the workplace, but I don’t think everybody really knows what that means. And, as I said, the people that use that term interchangeably with customer service, I’d argue that there’s a big disconnect there in terms of their level of understanding. Also, if I just might, ‘cause you were mentioning about the market research and how it’s evolved today and whatnot and how it relates to customer experience, something that, I think, doesn’t get enough coverage and that people don’t talk enough about in the market research world is how market research is part of the customer experience. It’s actually part of the experience of the customers that you are reaching out to to conduct that market research. And the classic example I like to use to illustrate that are customer surveys that dissatisfy your customers.  We’ve all gotten those surveys that they could be like 20-pages long; they could ask you to remember things, an interaction two weeks ago that you have no clue about. And I think that — no offense to market researchers, to anybody in the research realm — but I think that’s something that people in that discipline would be wise to understand is that the work that they are doing is part of the experience itself, and so not only should it be used to cultivate insight, it should also be used to strengthen the impression that that customer has of the company that’s conducting that research. 


The point that you’re making right now is, in my opinion, should be one of the tenets (we should read a blog post on this) like tenets of research of what is the rubric-base understanding of “Should I do this project?” or I should at least check these boxes to ensure that…  Mobile compatibility is a great example. I launched a survey recently. It wasn’t my survey. I didn’t program it, but I was doing some work for it, and it was getting really bad completion rate and I’m like, “What in the world is going on? Incidents shouldn’t be this low.” It turns out it wasn’t mobile compatible, and in a world where you’ve got over 60% of respondents happening now on mobile devices… Anything I take is on a mobile device; I don’t sit in front of my desktop anymore and take a survey; I’m doing work at that point. We, as researchers, when we say that we’ve heard this said a lot:  “It used to be the case that brands were who said they were and now they are who their customer says they are…” This became very apparent to me at Decipher about 15, oh, gosh, less than that, like 10 years ago. We were doing this longitudinal study for eBay. We’d been doing it for a couple of years, and I looked at the email report, and we had just sent over a billion emails against this project over the period of time that we had had it. They were basically customer-satisfaction type NPS-ish thing, different than that but that was the gist of it. And I’m like, “Holy crap, that’s a lot of… That’s a lot of…”  You think like direct marketing, for example. You know what I mean? That’s like marketing department should have visibility on all those touches, and yet there’s zero visibility there. So yeah, research is an extension of brand. 


Yeah, absolutely. 


Your service is geared towards optimizing customer experience for your customers. Who are your customers? And I mean down to like who are you interacting with at the corporate level from a level perspective? 


Sure. So, the first thing I would say is — and this gets back to the definition of customer experience — the work that my firm does, I’d actually describe it as straddling two dimensions and that is the customer experience as well as the employee experience. Because the way I encourage people to think about it is a great customer experience is like a well choreographed performance. And there is an onstage component, which is all the live print and digital touch points that the customers see. But then there’s also the backstage component and that’s everything that’s going on behind the scenes, which, while invisible to the customer, nonetheless can exert a very meaningful influence on the quality of the experience that’s delivered. And backstage influences might be things like your hiring process, the types of people that you’re hiring, how you vet them, how you onboard them and train them, how you measure and reward them, the cultural norms in the organization, leadership behaviors. These are all things that create an environment that either can be conducive to creating a great experience or can undermine it. So, my firm, actually…  The work that we do with our clients often straddles those two areas, both the onstage and the backstage. And in terms of who we interact with at companies, it does vary quite a bit. There are companies that have at this point chosen to appoint like a chief customer officer. So it’s not uncommon for somebody like that to be our primary point of engagement. But there are also firms that we’ve worked with where it’s the CEO that just might be very passionate about this and is the one who’s driving the activity. We’ve also seen customer experience live in marketing; so, a CMO might be our primary point of contact. We’ve seen it live in operations where a COO might be the primary point of contact.

 And actually I think that that diversity of contacts and how this thing called customer experience resides in so many different places actually speaks to why it can be difficult to really nail this thing in an organization because there’s both an art and a science to customer experience. And if you think that it is just a marketing endeavor, you are doomed to fail. And if you think it is just an operational endeavor, you are doomed to fail. And I have found that the people we work with that are most successful are the ones who can actually dip their toes in both of those dimensions. People who might be a trained marketer, but they’ve got a good sense of the operational aspects of how to not just articulate a value proposition but to bring it to life operationally, to really weave that customer experience theme through every interaction that you have with a company. And then, conversely, we’ve worked with people in operations roles, who might not be classically trained marketers, but they understand that aligning the experience with the brand and how it is defined is critical. So I think it is kind of fascinating if you see just the variety of individuals that we work with and that are often reaching out to us for help. It really does reflect the criticality of having sort of a left-brain-and-right-brain approach to engineering customer experiences. 


What is the customer trigger for them to reach out? 


If we look at the most common reasons why people reach out to us, I’d say it probably falls into three or four categories. One is the company that says we’re just launching a customer experience initiative, and we need help understanding how to structure that.  Should we hire a chief customer officer? Should we create a centralized team? If we do, what should they be responsible for? What should their priorities be? And so, that’s one common type of engagement is helping them build almost that organizational scaffolding, if you will, on how to structure a customer experience improvement initiative. 

A second common type of engagement is when a company will come to us and say, “We know in our hearts that we can do better for our customers, but we’re just not quite sure where and how to start.” And so, we have a methodology that we use in that situation, which is essentially a very deep and comprehensive dive into the firm’s current customer experience, basically, answering the question: “What does it really feel like to be your customer?”  Because you might think you know what it feels like, but within the walls of the organization, often that view is very different than what it actually feels like to the customer. So helping them map that out for people, show them the highs and the lows in the experience, and to give them a very detailed road map for how to get from point A to point B, which, mind you, isn’t just about enhancing existing interaction points. It can also be about adding entirely new interaction points that don’t exist today but help to elevate the quality of the experience. So that’s a second common type of engagement. 

The third I’d say is when people are at an even earlier stage and they say, “Hey, you know, we’re hearing about this customer experience thing, but we need to sort of get our executive team on the same page with the what is it all about and how do great companies really manage it.” Or maybe they’re already there with their executive ranks, and they need help with the front line:  getting them to understand what is the customer experience and how can they personally on the front line each day…? What can you do in order to influence the quality of that experience in your role? And so, for that we’ve got a lot of educational programs that help spread the Gospel, if you will, around not just what customer experience is but the techniques great companies use to effectively manage it. 


So, let’s dive into the report. The findings, as I understand them, you’ve got the S&P 500, which has had year-over-year improvements for the last decade, material up and down, but total aggregate certainly up.  The analytics that you’ve done is to identify that CX leaders are about 45 points above the S&P and probably the eyebrow-raising part is the CX laggards are underperforming by 75 points, which I think is a really important.  That’s a material Delta between the two. So, talk to us a little bit about the methodology of the report and then maybe unpack for us this key finding. 


Sure. So, one thing that might be helpful is actually to talk just a little bit about the origin of the report and why we even chose to start doing it. And it goes back to when I first established Watermark a decade ago because something that I saw then as we were in that credibility-building stage, and this is something I even saw in the corporate world when I was in corporate roles.  But a lot of executives and companies pay good lip service to the idea of customer experience and good customer service. But the dirty little secret that everybody has that they don’t talk about in the town hall meetings with employees and whatnot, is that there is this inherent skepticism of “Does it really pay off?” And I think in part that skepticism is due to the fact that people see companies out there in the marketplace that seem to do a really bad job for their customers yet seem to be profitable at least for some period of time.

And so, when I launched Watermark, I was really thinking a lot about how do you open the dialogue with people to get them to entertain the idea that this might actually be something worth investing in. And I started to think, “Well, what is the language that every business executive understands?” And what it came down to was shareholder value. Whether you’re a public or private entity, that is a proxy for the value of my company. And so, I thought, “Okay, if shareholder value is the language everybody understands, can we demonstrate the value of a great customer experience in that universal vernacular?” And that really was the birth of the Watermark customer experience ROI Study. And so, what we did is we didn’t pick the customer experience leaders or laggards ourselves. We weren’t stacking the deck. We actually used research from other well-known firms that each year had established programs where they were interviewing over 10,000 consumers and ranking 200, 300 companies in quality of customer experience.  
We took publicly available information and, basically, created two portfolios, two model portfolios. The leader portfolio was made of the top 10 publicly traded companies in customer experience; the laggards were made up on the bottom 10. And then, what we did is each year when those rankings came out, we went back a year and calculated the stock market performance of those companies. Now, the reason we went back a year is because we wanted to insulate ourselves from the criticism that the mere publication of the report, the mere selection of those companies as the leaders or laggards, might actually drive their stock price. And we believed that whatever was happening in those companies was already baked into their performance the prior year before the research surveys identified them as leaders or laggards. So we did that, and, basically, year after year you assume that you create these model portfolios, you repopulate them each year, and you look at the aggregate performance.

And so what we found (we’re now up to 11 years of data that we have) over that 11-year period, as you noted, the customer experience leaders outperform the S&P by about 45 points; the S&P outperforms the laggards by about a 75. And if you look at the Delta in performance between the leaders and the laggards, it’s a three to one ratio. So quite significant. And something I would just say:  You noted that your attention was drawn to the, the difference between the S&P 500 and the laggards. And I think that’s actually a very important thing to highlight because many people, when they’re thinking about customer experience investment, they’re thinking, “Well, what’s the upside?” But nobody talks that much really about what’s the cost of not doing anything. And the cost of not doing anything is illustrated quite vividly and in great pain by those lagging companies that are underperforming the S&P and far underperforming the leading companies. The study, which has become, —  and I’m so happy to hear that you reference it frequently — and, as you probably know, it’s become one of the most widely cited studies in this area within customer experience. And I have found it is a great way to start a conversation with people who have an inherent skepticism about whether this stuff really pays off because it’s just hard to argue with 11 years now that this pecking order, this pattern of performance, has persisted. And I want to be very clear that it’s not a perfect correlation. We’re talking about portfolios of leaders and laggards that are outperforming, underperforming. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of ways you could screw up your business even if you have a great customer experience. And the example that I like to use for people is actually Borders Books.  Borders Books back in, I think it was, 2011 was actually the number-one rated company in customer experience. And within a year they were bankrupt. And the reason for that is because there were a whole host of things that they did in their business that just completely torpedoed their ability to perform. They locked in long-term leases so that when the real estate market collapsed, they couldn’t take advantage of lower real estate prices. They had four CEO’s in like five years. They had outsourced their e-commerce to Amazon, which is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. I want to be clear that it’s not a perfect correlation, but what the study shows is that, on average, the companies that over the long-term are leading in customer experience are indeed outperforming the market and their peers. 


I’m really interested in this next part. How many companies are fitting into that underperforming? I know you said bottom 10% but, if you pull back a little bit, is it just a few companies? When I think about like the, the Delta – the 45 up, and the 75 down, which is a heavy weight, it feels like the majority of companies in the S&P are actually doing relatively well inside of this space, right? And then you’ve got this bottom 10% or really far away kind of a thing. And this is anecdotal; I haven’t actually crunched the numbers. I don’t know which companies are necessarily fitting in those categories. But really what I’m thinking about is the total addressable market for CX or consumer experience is, do you see that as a like is it going to grow a lot over the next few years? And I’m going to end on this last story. I was listening to a podcast, Donuts to Dollars [sic -Dollars to Donuts], which Steve Portigal’s the host of that, well-known user experience researcher. And he had the head of customer experience on his show. I forget the guest’s name, but the company was CBRE, and they didn’t actually have a centralized CX function or research function in the organization.  And over the whatever it’s been, (I think at that point it was less than a year when she did the interview) they had already had five staff there and were really moving aggressively from installation perspective. So my point is that you’ve got this really large organization that has not historically thought of CX as being playing a play, and, yet now they’re starting that investment piece. Conversely, you’ve got Facebook that, in and of themselves, has over 600 UX researchers, right. Forget about the other disciplines. Which is kind of like the other end of the spectrum. Do you think that the overall market is in CX is going to be growing or do you feel like it’s fairly stable? What’s your point of view over the next couple of years? 


Well, Gosh, I’m kind of biased probably to answer that question.


Both of us are and I feel like this is a little bit, and, to that point, I really try not to be a conversation with ourselves, which I liken to Fox News or something. But…


Let me answer your question this way. Here’s what I would say. I think that particularly today, (I think this has always been true but especially these days), I think that many forms of competitive differentiation are fleeting. New products and new technologies can pretty easily get from one company to another.  Cost leadership is difficult to achieve, let alone sustain, but a great customer experience and the internal ecosystem that supports it can actually be difficult to replicate and can accord tremendous strategic and economic advantage to a firm. And so for that reason, if I had to place my bets anywhere, it would be on focus in customer experience increasing over time and companies and industries that maybe didn’t think in those terms in the past, starting to think about it because I feel that in the inevitable march towards commoditization, it is the customer experience that will be your savior. I mean that is what is going to inoculate you from a lot of competitive forces that can turn your company into one of the many corporate carcasses that litter the road of those firms that thought that they were delivering something differentiated but, in truth, were not. 


Is it Clay Christiansen? That book that talks about the only real sustained point of differentiation is customer relationship. I think that’s right. Anyways, it’s either Crossing the Chasm [sic] or…  I mean there is no IP.  There’s nothing that you can protect.  Zoom is a great example of that in the market. We all saw their S-1 that was filed, and yet that company entered probably…  I mean so dominated with GoToMeeting and Oracle’s, the whole Citrix-type framework, and for another company to be able to come in and the offers basically the same exact thing, but in an optimized way — We’re using it now, as a case in point — it’s just remarkable. How if you pay attention to that, creates this whole land-grab opportunity even in completely entrenched and established markets. 


Yeah, I think that’s an excellent example. The example I also like to use for people is Blockbuster Video.  Blockbuster Video, they thought they were doing great. They could actually probably, and this is another common mistake that companies make, Blockbuster was probably looking at its customer retention statistics and was like, “Hey, we’re doing terrific.”  But what they didn’t realize, retention is not a proxy for loyalty. There are a whole host of reasons why your company might retain customers, but yet they’re not really loyal to you and, when something better comes along, they will quickly jump ship. Some people might call it sort of digital disruption and whatnot with some of the more recent examples of this with an Amazon and what it did to bookstores or what Zappos did to Payless ShoeSource.  I mean to me it’s not digital disruption. It’s about somebody coming along and figuring out a better way to skin the cat, a way to deliver a better customer experience. And if that happens to be enabled in part by digital technology, well, then great. But, if I go back to your original question about “Is the market going to expand?” I think if there’s any part of the business marketplace where people are thinking, “Hey, we don’t need to really focus on this,” it’s probably in those industries that are somewhat monopolistic where the thought is, “Hey, people don’t have a substitute.  So why should we be investing in creating a better experience from them?” But that’s when I point people to the examples of Borders or of a Blockbuster because somebody is always going to figure out a way to deliver that better customer experience to innovate. If you’re not doing it yourself, somebody else will do it for you, and that’ll be the end of your business. 

And a few years ago we started to do customer experience ROI studies for specific industries. And one of the industries that we selected was actually the airline industry. And we targeted it because many people say airline seats are a commodity. It’s like you’re going to fly with whoever gets you from point A to point B and you’re going to go for the lowest price. Well, we actually found that when you look at the customer experience leaders in the airline industry versus the laggards, it’s a very similar setup to what the study we’ve been talking about illustrates and that there actually is a performance premium for airlines that outperform in customer experience. That was something that surprised many people because they thought if there’s any industry where it’s highly competitive, highly commoditized, isn’t that it? But the fact is there are airlines like Alaska and JetBlue and Southwest that have figured out a way to break out of that mold. 


The Blockbuster example is really interesting cause it’s like the exact…  It’s the exact bulls-eye of a bad customer experience, right, because their business model was predicated on late fees. So it’s like when your business model is predicated on basically you screwing the customer, then you can pretty much guarantee you need to reach out to Watermark Consulting and sort that problem out. And, on the other side of it, I’ll talk a little bit about McDonald’s ‘cause I think McDonald’s has done a remarkable job of partnering with the buyers, the consumers, and identifying what the best value opportunity is in front of them. And I like the…  I think it’s four for two or something whatever the special is, but they run these various specials and they’ll actually tell people, “Hey, this is going to get you the most.” They don’t say it like this, but thank God I’m not in charge of the marketing department. But they don’t say it’s like, “Here’s the maximum calories for the least amount of dollar,” like that kind of thing. But they really have done an outstanding job of changing just the way that they interact with customers so that they are promoting to the customer, “This is how you can get the most out of your dollar right now.” 


Yeah. And also as long as you bring up McDonald’s, the other thing I think is worth noting about them is the consistency of the experience. I mean, you could argue whether you’re a McDonald’s fan or not, but the bottom line is you go into any McDonald’s, you can be pretty assured of what the experience is going to be like. And that is another component of a great customer experience. Creating any kind of experience sporadically is one thing, even if it’s a good one, but creating a really good customer experience consistently at every location, day in and day out, that’s an entirely different animal. And one thing you have to give credit to a company like McDonald’s for is, you know, whether you like it or not, the experience is certainly very consistent from outlet to outlet.


Yeah, it, you know, Gosh, okay, so this is funny and I’ll just personalize it a little bit. I actually go to McDonald’s about three times a week in the mornings. On my commute and they have good oatmeal. And I mean you can get oatmeal anywhere and it is, I think it’s probably equally healthy if I get it at Starbucks as well. So there, it’s a little bit cheaper. And so, I shifted because of the value thing to getting a different meal with some eggs. And I kind of got like once a week that was like my go-to breakfast. And it was always the same every single week for months. It was always the same until one time it wasn’t. And the eggs were runny, and I was like, “Never ordering that again.” And I, literally, won’t because of the fear of that, you know? So it’s, it’s interesting that you’re bringing that up because it really is such a hard freaking thing to do of delivering day in and day out that exact same customer experience. I remember at Decipher I had a customer and we would do great on like 15-20 projects and then one project wouldn’t go well. And I remember this client, he was at PayPal at the time, gave his feedback.  And he told me, “You know what, Jamin? I’d rather you just like decrease your overall quality just so I know what I’m going to get every single time.” 


Yeah, yeah. ‘Cause it could be jarring for a customer when you know, it’s like you’re spinning the roulette wheel, ”What am I going to get this time?” And that’s, that can be very jarring for people. 


Yeah, for sure. Anyway. Good. So, I want to end on this question. What is your personal motto? 


So, I’d have to say it is, “Seek to impress.”  Seek to impress all with whom you do business, whether it is individual consumers, business clients, whether they’re colleagues, coworkers.  I’ve always thought that if you’re aspiring to satisfy your customers, you’re aspiring to mediocrity and the key to delivering a great differentiated customer experience no matter what type of customer you’re talking about is to seek not just to satisfy them but to impress them, to leave that indelible impression that Watermark, if you will, that has them coming back for more and telling other people a about you. 


Perfect. My guest today has been Jon Picoult. Jon, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.  He is founder and principal of Watermark Consulting. I’m sure that people can find you on your website. But maybe you could just give us a quick like how people could get in contact with you.


Sure. So, you can Google Watermark Consulting or you can go to a www.watermarkconsult.net.


Perfect. And, of course, that information along with his information on LinkedIn will be available on the show notes. Thank you so much for your time today. 


Thank you, I enjoyed it. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   Have a great rest of your day.

Ep. 228 – Steve Portigal – Trends in User Experience & Market Research, and How They are Driving Success

My guest today is Steve Portigal, Founder of Portigal Consulting. Established in 2001, Portigal Consulting helps organizations bring insights about their users into their design and development processes. Additionally, he has also authored two books: “Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories,” and “Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights.” And, Steve hosts Dollars to Donuts which has 24 episodes with remarkable guests including head of User Experience Research at Pinterest, Airbnb, Mailchimp, Goldman Sachs, and IBM.

Find Steve Online:


Website: portigal.com

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Social Media: @happymrxp


Website: happymr.com

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On Episode 228, I’m interviewing Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting, but first a word from our sponsor. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   


Hi, I’m Jamin, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting.  Established in 2001, Portigal Consulting helps organizations bring insights about their users into their design and development processes. Additionally, he has authored two books: Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries, User Research War Stories. I actually am ordering that one as soon as we are off this call. It’s on my list of things to do today, by the way, and then I’ve already ordered the Interviewing Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights. Holy Moly, that is going to be super interesting.  And Steve hosts what is now my number one listened to podcast for the last two weeks. In fact, I’ve got a six-hour or eight-hour road trip coming up this Wednesday. All the episodes are downloading. I believe I’m going to be caught up at the end of that road trip. He’s got 24 episodes with remarkable guests, including head of user-experience research at Pinterest, Airbnb, MailChimp, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and the list goes on. Steve, it is an honor to have you on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. Thank you. 


I’m happy to be here. 


I’d like to start out with a quick kind of assessment of, from your point of view…  You grew up in a different area than the Bay Area. Tell us a little bit about your parents, your upbringing, and how that informed who you are today and what you’re doing. 


Yeah, I was raised by a single parent. My mom raised me and my sister in southern Ontario. It’s a suburb of Toronto. And, when we grew up…  This is sort of development in any big city. We grew up—it’s probably about 45 minutes from Toronto—but it was a small town. There were like orchards and things that you don’t see as much in…  Well, I guess there’s development everywhere, but I remember when we got our first McDonald’s like that kind of thing. It was pretty isolated. I grew up in the 70s. It felt pretty isolated and pretty small town, and now it’s just part of Toronto. It falls under the same kind of administrative area. So it’s definitely a different community than the one that I grew up in. But it was, I guess, a smallish town kind of upbringing. My mom worked for the Canadian federal government. She worked as kind of an administrator or a clerk for a benefits office. And, so growing up in a single parent household, like your mom was working  (I don’t know if we had the phrase “latch key kids” then), but we were the kids with like a string around our neck with a house key that we were the ones that were able to let ourselves into our house, which wasn’t, again, maybe not a common thing for many of my peers. So, you grew up in that environment. It’s a little bit of independence and autonomy and responsibility at maybe an earlier age. My mom’s workplace was… She’s serving the public a lot. It’s a lot of either manning the phones or being on the front desk, and you’re dealing with people in need that are contacting about benefits. And so, she would come home with stories every day, first of all about just the kind of work environment, which was pretty bureaucratic and maybe not about empowering people or creating rules that were safe and effective for the staff and the people they were trying to serve; but also just the stories of people that she would meet and  upsetting or funny or… She just had a lot of stories that had a lot of detail and a lot of complexity to them about just what it was like in that kind of environment. So yeah, when I was a kid there were no—this is such an old man thing to say—even just so before cable channels, before most people had VCRs in their homes, let alone before the Internet and in a very kind of monoculture, small town. Like we were one of only a few Jewish families. So we didn’t … You just didn’t get exposed to things through the course of your life, who you were in school with, what you had kind of access to. We had books, of course, a great library, but not the amount of culture and diversity that you’re exposed to and you know in the culture we live in now. So I think in some way her stories were just that sort of the biggest stream of what real life could be like outside the home of a child. It really opened things up and kind of a funny and challenging way I guess they were lots of different kinds of stories.


Are you an only child? 


No, I have a younger sister. She’s six years younger than me. 


And what does she do? 


She is a genetic counselor.


Okay. That’s heavy. 


It sounds very interesting. Yes, you are also dealing with people in…  I don’t know that it’s exclusively in times of health crisis. I think it’s sometimes also coaching them through or supporting them through where there’s questions or where there’s uncertainty. She also works with the public in a pretty intimate kind of way. 


It sounds like stories are a big part of your upbringing and, obviously, your career now as a user-experience researcher, right? How did you wind up in user experience?


How did I wind up in user experience? It feels like a series of opportunistic accidents or happenstance. Again, you have to anchor this in time. When I came out of graduate school, there was no (I guess the web technically existed) but there was no web industry. There was no web design. I didn’t know about software design. I barely had been exposed to industrial design, sort of the maybe the more historical source of creating innovative products was kind of coming out of that field. So I really had very little exposure or awareness that this work existed. I mean the work didn’t really exist.  So, this technology was starting to change how brands were talking to the world, how companies were making products. That created a lot of change that maybe I drafted along with. 

So, I ended up studying in graduate school human-computer interaction, sort of the academic, maybe precursor to user experience. But I was not trained to be a designer. It was an academic program. You learn to critique or analyze or create frameworks or explore things. It was not a practitioner degree. And again, I didn’t know that there were people who were designers working in this field. It was all sort of creating best practices for making software. And these kinds of large telecommunication companies was what we were exposed to. These kinds of academic papers that were coming out of the industry was what was feeding me. So that seemed like what I might want to go into. But again, I wasn’t trained to do that work. There wasn’t really training to do that work. I was very fortunate. I think this is part of the happenstance through a series of “Oh, you should talk to so and so.” I met somebody at a conference, and they gave me some names, and then you were maybe emailing or maybe phoning or leaving voicemails.  Months later I ended up with a job at—and this is what brought me out to the Bay Area where I am now—a job at this industrial design consultancy. So nominally I was (I wasn’t a designer) but I was working on human-interface design, and there was also this emergent practice in user research that was happening there. And I kind of apprenticed into that. It’s cool way to apprentice when it’s not like anyone really knows what they’re doing as opposed to it being handed down to you and here’s how we do it. We didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t know how to write a proposal, how to quote for it and how to describe it at an advocate for it, how to scope it. These things were all kind of…  


What year is this?


This would have been like 95 or 96. 


Okay. Super early. 


Yeah, and so over the next few years, we got good at, I think, the business part of it as well as the practice part of it. And we started teaching classes at the local schools about it. It became a thing where if you apprentice, eventually you become the journeyman and then you become the master and you can help other people apprentice. And so, we hired people with less professional experience and brought them in as well. So it started to become a thing that we knew how to do. So that was early times for sure, entry to this field.


So, let’s talk a little bit; just set some context for the listeners. The majority of the of my audience is our market research professionals and predictive analytics companies or people in that field. Give us a little bit of a framework for user-experience research. It feels to me, as an outsider, that there’s a lot of overlapping methodologies, but the applications and even the vernacular in some cases is different, right?  So, where your user-experience research sits inside of the organization is not inside of market research. It’s a different part of the org structure usually. And then on top of it, just tuning into your podcast, listening to about people, your guests and yourself, the nomenclature is just different than market research. Talk to us a little bit about the evolution of user-experience research and, and then maybe get us up to date today in context of like a modern company.  So, I like using Lyft as an example. They have 5 market researchers and over 50 user-experience researchers. So, in a lot of ways you’ve seen user experience move this more kind of like niche don’t really know squishy and now it’s just it feels like it’s become a very dominant. There’s a lot of headcount that’s associated with it in the corporations. 


I would guess there are contrasting firms.  I heard a story about this yesterday where analytics and could we just call it traditional market research? (the more established, historical kind of practice) has more headcount, it has more impact and the user research is smaller.  I think you’ll see organizations where the balance is different or the headcount is different. Yeah, I’m hesitant that (You can hear the hesitancy in my voice.) I’m hesitant to try to define or make any kind of definitive declarations about any of this because it is sort of shifting and there are many perspectives on this and I don’t want to say something where, well, that’s completely wrong. So it’s just possible that I may be.


Everything I say I’m pretty sure is wrong half the time.  So, anyway, for what it’s worth, when you think about like Intuit is a good example of a company that leverages user-experience research heavily. They were my very first client at Decipher, and I’ve been working with them since 1996.  So super early days. They have in-house usability labs. Predominantly, originally, it was staffed by the market research team and then user experience—Just kind of taking them as a case study—sort of filtered into the broader organization. And so, one of the things that (maybe the question here is more “yes” or “no,” which is a terrible question to ask) but one of the things that I think I’m seeing is this democratization of access to the consumer so that you don’t have to be a PhD. 

It’s great if you are, but you’re seeing research being done in various levels across your organization.  And user experience, again, not categorically or like here’s the box that it fits in ‘cause that doesn’t exist, but user experience is basically just is part of like product, right? So, as companies are seeing more and more of their full customer experience be considered product, you’re seeing an adoption of things. Like Apple’s a good example. You look at their receipt and you understand it, right? I mean it’s beautiful like somebody’s actually taken a receipt and turned it into language, which if you look at almost any other receipt, it’s nonsensical. I’m not suggesting they have a head of product for receipts but, broadly speaking, the way that they’re doing this. And so anyway, it’s the long-winded way of me asking this question of really trying to see or understand:  Do you see user experience as a job function and then also maybe, more broadly, as just an adopted discipline across organizations increasing? 


The question is sort of about the language we use to describe this work. I would just be a little picky on the terms and I would separate user experience from user-experience research.


Okay, perfect.


We’re sort of talking about market research and how do we think about that relative to user-experience research. But then I think this is where it gets slippery because then we sometimes, and I hear this all the time, substitute user experience for user-experience research. 


I would love clarity on this point, by the way, because I am uneducated as it relates with this. 


Definitions of functions and so on are things that like design Twitter loves to argue about. So again, I’ll just blunder ahead here. To me, user experience is like a short for…  User experience is the thing that you are as an organization are creating. So, what does it like to buy a product from Apple? How do you find it? Where do you look to get it? How do you transact? What’s your out of the box experience? What’s the receipt look like? Right? And so that whole experience is designed. So UX, so user experience is sometimes called UX design. When you start talking about it in those terms, like the example of Apple, I think about service design, another sort of buzz word. But these things are more alike than they’re similar. But I think these words provide hooks to how to kind of even think about it. So what’s the whole service from the… ‘cause part of dealing with Apple if you go into the store is dealing with a person who has a way of troubleshooting with you, and a way of placing you in a queue, and a way of upselling you or not.  There’s so many aspects to what that person is doing, and they’re part of the whole experience that you as a customer or user have. So to me, user-experience research is a certain kind of research activity that’s meant to inform the decisions that are made around the user experience that gets created. And I think you kind of talked about product, right? I mean just look at the labels that we have for these things sort of shows where they come from. 

So market research is about understanding this kind of thing to make these decisions. User-experience research is historically about understanding these things to make these decisions. And I think there’s lots of gray area and lots of overlap and some of it may have to do with where’s their head counts, who do those people report to, what is that person’s portfolio, what’s their comfort zone, what are they advocating for? And then. I think you also hit on a really important thing:  this phrase that I keep hearing about, “democratization of research.” And you tied it to making increasing access or availability. And this is a hot topic in like the people that are on my podcast, the clients that I work with because the demand for—let’s just call it research and not even say what kind of research—the demand for research, fortunately, has grown, and now there are more questions than (This is like a be careful what you wish for, right?) there are more questions that need to be asked than there are resources, whatever we label these resources, to answer them. So, Lyft has however many people you said; they still (I’m hazarding a guess here) they can’t meet the demand that there is internally. So, I’ll throw another term out there. There’s a sort of a movement or a practice that’s emerged in the last couple of years called “research ops.” It’s the operations of a research. There’s a very active slack community. There’s more and more conference content around this. There’s a lot out there. And it is about within an organization at least, how do we create the circumstances whereby research can take place without every single person that wants to do research having to figure out “What is research?”, “How do I learn how to ask questions?”, “What data do we already have?”, “What do we have access to?”, “What data storage, privacy management requirements do I have to comply with?” So putting practices in place such that people who are quote “researchers,” that’s their title and people who are product people and people who are anybody or some subset of anybody can get access to this information in a way that is of high quality and that helps them drive towards these kinds of decisions. So, I think that the infrastructure and that access is happening. The other thing that seems to be happening, and I don’t have as much of a buzz word for this, but I think it falls under the democratization bit, is as more people in the organization understand the potential of understanding who people are and what they’re going through and where we might play differently to address their needs. 

That’s being turned into opportunities to improve so many parts of what an organization does. So marketing teams are working with (I’ll just air quote) “user-experience researchers” because they realize, “Oh, we can do something with this.” The last consulting engagement I’ve just wrapped up was with a human resources team that’s looking at what the recruiting process is. So we’re looking at the user experience of being a hiring manager, being a recruiter, being a candidate, and what are the processes that are put in place to support that, to get to the outcomes the organization has as a goal, what are the tools that are, that are designed, you know, technology and other to make that happen. So that’s not about the product of the company. It’s not about the market of the company, but it is about this company functioning better to achieve its goals. So that to me seems very exciting that that they’re starting to be broader acceptance than maybe some of these, these walls are coming down and that the potential for all the work that we’re doing to have impact across other parts of the organization is growing seems very exciting to me. 


Yeah, I mean anytime you ingest the consumer into a business decision, then as long as it’s not like you’re not mixing qual and quant or whatever, you know, dangerous traps you might fall into, you know, you can’t take a micro insight and extrapolate it to a market, for example. But you know, as long as that doesn’t happen, presumably, and you’re asking questions in the right way, you as an organization are going to be consumer-led and therefore, have a better outcome. The other term that I’ve heard a lot, especially since the Qualtrics acquisition by SAP is customer experience. I pay a lot of attention to Google trends and customer experience is actually like crazy how it’s ramping right now. Do you see that interchangeable with user experience? 


Right? There are, I think plenty of Medium articles out there that say, “What’s the difference between CX?” Cause if we want to be really cool, we have to abbreviate it. “What are the differences between CX and UX?” My eyes glaze over a little bit when I hear that. I don’t know. And maybe that’s just the privilege of being a consultant. You sort of get dropped into a lot of different parts of the organization, but you’re not responsible for the overall map or maybe just intellectual laziness on my part. I don’t know. I would never be the person to…  You can hear how I struggle with definitions of what this is and what that is. 


Yeah, and again, I’m not trying to paint you in a corner here. I’m just trying to kind of level set in the context of these trends that we’re seeing and try to understand. We used to have NPS, for example, as being the god of the state of your business, right? And if you got a 60% NPS and you’re just doing fantastic.  And now you’ve got a new, I forget the name of the scale, but a new product market fit scale that is starting to usurp the NPS. So, it’s a three-point scale and instead of it being framed in a positive, it’s now a negative. How upset would you be if your product was not available to you next week? And if you’re on a three-point scale, if you’re very upset, then that’s a win. So now we have this double negative. I’m like, “How can we make this more complex?” I don’t know. Triple negative maybe will be the way we end in five years from now, right?  But that’s fine. So, it might just be the case that we just see the same thing but called a different name because we have a generation that’s coming up that doesn’t necessarily have that point of reference, right? I don’t know. For me, and I’ve read a lot of content. In fact, I’m speaking at Michigan State and for like two hours on this particular topic. Thank God there’s more, but this is like part of the thesis is that you’re seeing this rise of these other disciplines, but really they’re all trying to do the same thing. It’s just more the lens of that or the culture of that organization and how they’re adopting it, whether it’s CX or UX. I do think that market research fits outside of that to a limited degree. But there is clearly that on that Venn Diagram, which again is something I would love to see if you’ve seen that Medium article, kind of the overlap of type of work done. That would be super interesting.


Right. I think it needs to be built. I mean probably someone’s taken a wag at it. But I’m excited for this conversation ‘cause even as we’re going back and forth on terms and how we kind of create alignment around terms, I think that the language becomes a boundary object.  It keeps us apart from talking about similar goals, maybe identical goals, maybe adjacent goals, the super set of our toolkits, our complementary ways of thinking about things. And you know I think introducing a new tool, introducing a new terminology, it can be done in a way that invites other people in other, other functions in, or it can be done in a way that we use to hold onto our potentially dwindling territory. Again, I don’t care about a lot of these terms, but I pay attention to the culture that kind of grows up around them, like how we talk about them and how we use them to educate and inform our clients, our internal clients, our consulting clients as well as our peers in this practice. Obviously, my hope is that we can take everything that we have access to. And not everybody is interested in everything or good at everything and the diversity of kinds of brains that are brought into the work to solve problems or create insight in different ways is where I see a lot of potential or I see a lot of excitement and what personally I’m looking for. I’m super smart, I think, but I am looking down a tunnel, that’s just how everybody is. So the more I can get access to other how other people unpack problems or create questions or pull insights out of things in a way that levels up what I am doing and adds value to it, then all the better.


So, as a fellow podcast host, there’s this space between…  So, we do a podcast, right, and it’s however long it is, but then there’s this bit that happens at the beginning of the podcast that isn’t ever published. And then there’s this kind of bit that happens at the end of the podcast that again is never published. Probably some of the more interesting things, conversations that I’ve had have been on those ends, right? They aren’t really necessarily part of the organic conversation that happens in the structured, the published, that sort of thing, right? So, you’re nodding your head. So, I’m assuming that you’ve had similar experiences. 


This is the phenomenon in user research, for sure. And it comes from medicine; it’s  the “doorknob phenomenon.” So, in medicine, people will go to see a clinician of some kind and go through the whole meeting, appointment and never really say what’s going on. And then, as they’re standing up and walking towards the door and putting their hand on the doorknob to turn it and leave, they’ll sort of turn over their shoulder and say, “Oh, I did want to ask you this one thing.” And it’s like the…  So, this happens in user research, right, that the tactical pieces don’t turn off your recording device ‘cause there’s something about, “Well, this is great; this is very helpful. Thanks for the time. “We learned a lot from you.” Sometimes, not always, but sometimes that… And if you’re giving someone an incentive, you might like hand it to them right away or put it right in their hand and hand them their forms, whatever sort of paperwork, kind of wrapping up, sometimes that can trigger this. “Oh, you know, I have the story about when I was a kid.”  I don’t say always like, always the good stuff is there, but just you want to allow space for that to happen and not in a sneaky way. Sometimes, I just won’t touch my recorder. It’s there on the table and they can see it and the red light is on and I’ll just keep going ‘cause they’re going to keep talking.


So, in those kind of edge, kind of the stuff that’s outside of the show, what are you picking up on in terms of major trends inside of user experience? I’m really interested in that ‘cause you have such a …  You have the highest caliber guests on your show, right? I mean they’re just amazing. What are the trends that you’re hearing from them and you’re seeing in your own consulting practice that are emerging and where we should be paying attention to for the next few years if you can project out that far? 


There’s some distribution. If I was a smart stats person, like people watching this, they would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the whatever distribution.” But you know the people that go on a podcast who are…  There’s such a sampling bias, I guess. I find people who are in-house in a leadership role around user-experience research. Well, there’s lots of organizations that don’t have leadership. They haven’t sort of invested enough that, “Hey, we need a leadership role dedicated to this alone.” So you’re seeing these kinds of organizations. What you don’t see from my podcast is the phrase is “the user-experience team of one.” There’s even a book with that title by Leah Buley. It’s about…, and I think it’s a passionately embraced book ‘cause there are all these people out there who (We talked about head count at the beginning) who are in organizations where they are in a mid-level role. They may be tasked with something else. They may be a designer who’s trying to create wireframes for the evolution of an app.  That’s kind of their main task. And they’re the ones saying, “We have to talk to customers. I need this information. We have to understand the problem and we need to evaluate our design decisions to see if this is going to resonate or work for people.” And then they’re taking that work on in their ample free time. So, these people I think are amazing, and they are struggling, I think, for resources and for some sense of, “Am I doing this right? Am I having the impact? What’s the magic thing that I should be doing differently?” Whereas it’s not really about them, it’s about their context. So, in terms of trends, I think we see more from a certain category of organization where there’s investments, but I also just see job ads on like slack channels or whatever groups you circulate in. 

Back in the day it was companies that we know:  the Googles, the Facebooks. It was the Yahoo; it was a big leader in a lot of usability and so on. I mean, you talked about Intuit. These are like companies that have invested, are big, that are high profile, that have invested heavily and we all know of them. If you work in tech or if you use tech, you know these companies. But some of my colleagues, some of the people who have been on the podcast, for example, leave those organizations and then I see what their next job is.  Or the job that I see posted are for companies I have never heard of who are small. There’s more things in like fintech, financial technology companies, that are not big banks but are little companies here and there that are trying to disrupt something established; logistics companies; just people making things that we don’t even know as a thing that gets made and they are starting to hire and then even hire leadership roles and really invest in this as part of how they are going to build things that are going to create the kind of change that they want as opposed to this being something that gets added in years later when they go public or try to go big or want to be acquired. It’s happening earlier. I think about this for myself, just my own practice, “Who should I be waving my hand at and saying like, ‘Hey, I exist. I can help you,’ “ when I don’t even know these companies are out there that are starting to get excited about this and, again, invest in it. For the work that we’re all doing, this is I think tremendous, right.  I think it’s happening earlier in a company’s growth, and it’s happening in a dedicated specific way. 

There’s a job req that has research in the title that is written by someone that—let’s just say they probably know somewhat about what they’re doing. I don’t have a critique of how recruiting is happening.  You can see that it’s happening in all these kinds of nooks and crannies of products and services and brands and technology. Yeah, that’s to your point, that’s in the kind of the corners between what’s coming out on the podcast and it’s just things that I am coming across in my kind of journey through the field. 


Interesting. So you’re seeing as it being…  I mean, obviously, it’s growing in the big company way, but you’re seeing it as something that companies are adopting a lot earlier in their life cycle. And it’s funny you say that cause I’m going through right now this startup phase with my new company. And as part of it, I thought it’d be a good idea to enroll in startup school, which is a free access to free resources. So, in this particular cohort 2019, I believe, it’s 23,000 startup companies, which is amazing. It would be interesting to see a word cloud or something more sophisticated done on like the natural language processing of the presentations we’ve heard. But I bet you “talk to your consumers or customers or users” would be the number one thing that would be flagged or in the top like that and “get to revenue” probably would be the top two things they talk about, right? And so, like there’s a big cultural shift moving away from the “build it; they will come” framework. 


Yeah. I’ve been spending a little more time with my clients and at conferences with the product management professionals, who are super excited about talking to customers. And it’s a thing that they’re doing. They maybe don’t know how overall, but they’re are hungry and they…  It’s not a thing that needs to be persuaded. It’s a thing that’s already understood. And so, the question is how and when. And that also is very exciting. In talking about cultural shifts, it’s just more default now. And I think this is interesting, and it raises challenges that collectively I don’t think we’re ready for. And it goes back to the democratization thing and I think one of your questions was about like, “Is this a role or a process?”  I can’t remember how you phrased it, but is user-experience research or market research or just whatever we want to call it, talking to people to gain insight? Is that a thing that a person with that job title does? Or is that a task or is it a department? How would we ideally want to structure it in eight years to take advantage of this? And I think the corollary there, or the caution also is I fear commoditization of the work and that, obviously, is because I’m a provider of the work. So I’m very biased in that.  The commoditization could be good. I think it’s our job as professionals with these labels to hold onto quality. And so, how to do that in a way that is inclusive that’s inviting people in; it’s not we have to control it. But anyone that does market research, user research hates crappy research that gets misused and propositions get made. 

That is not the thing we want to have happen.  And it is a skill. So as much as we are creating content and writing books and creating all sorts of stuff that empowers people to do it, it also is easy to do poorly and hard to do well. And I don’t have an answer for that. I’d rather be encouraging than sort of fear-mongering, and I want people to do it in practice and get better at it. But I also want there to be…  Not everything needs to win a gold medal, but I think sort of understanding the trade offs that you make. 


Yeah, based on the level of professionalism. I think that’s a solid point. I think, when I first started my career, when I started my career in market research, the way that we priced projects was 3x. So it was like, what’s my costs? Like my recruiting costs, my whatever. Right? And then I just multiply that by three and then I had my project price. I’m not saying that was universal, that was just how we did it in the 90s, how I did it for the company I worked for and was trained to do. So the value there is, obviously, connected to the difficulty of the logistics as opposed to the size and implication of the insight that is being gathered from that particular project. It’s easy also for consumer of research to pay for a large project ‘cause they recognize this really difficult logistically. 

There’s this sidestep that makes it easier for an expensive project for you to pay a lot for it on the analytics side.  So, now to your point, it’s becoming easier and easier to talk to the consumer, which I think gets to a really important issue, which is how do we ultimately price this? Right? Because you can’t just have it as a direct relationship between time value. You know, we’re not lawyers, right? The learning how to have a productive conversation with the consumer that’s going to change, going to have $100 million impact on a business, that’s not a $500 interview, presumably. So, yeah, I don’t know. that to me has my eyes wide open right now on how the terms of trade are going to evolve over the next three to five years, especially as different web services create the perception that I can just upload my data and get a magic answer. 


And then the other factor is that, if you go back to the eras that you and I keep hearkening back to, this work was only done outside corporations, right? They didn’t have…  I mean Intuit wasn’t an innovator in the 90s but for the most part if you wanted this work, you went to a consultant, an agency. And now, that’s the reason I can have this podcast where I talk to people who are in leadership roles in-house is because the investments and the growth is all happening inside organizations and that infrastructure, that operational infrastructure, serves them. It doesn’t serve vendors or consultants as well. And those of us on the outside that are trying to provide that external perspective, external expertise, we are in dwindling numbers. I think that creates concerns that…  We were talking about the podcast a little bit in what that reveals. It’s so interesting to me to talk to people inside of an organization about research and hear them talk appropriately like corporate people. And it’s not a knock on corporate people, but you spend all your time inside a culture. You have a lot of language and a lot of shorthand and there’s just a way of talking about things. And back in my day, as a researcher that was a consultant, your job was to bring that outside in as to mirror the language of the world, not the language of the producer of the tool for the world. And when the person who sort of bringing the outside in is part of the in, they’re going to do that very, very differently. 

So again, I think in a dramatic way I would say they’ve been co-opted. I don’t think that’s true. But the practice has evolved and so, I’m the external voice, but research is being owned by people who are internal voices and they have a stake in the outcome. They are the product success. They have maybe a financial incentive or a job security incentive.  And I think market research, user research, it’s kind of a truth-to-power job. And that’s just very interestingly different when the context changes and the people who work in-house can do so many things that I can’t do because they have that internal map. They have those relationships; they have the history; they have the language; they can speak the language. I can’t speak the language. So the best for me is to have a partnership with that person where we can kind of leverage each other’s strengths and deficits. But, obviously, most research is being handled entirely in-house by in-house, people who are part of that culture. And I don’t know that we have a…  We may need to wait a few more years to sort of see what does that mean, what does that look like and what’s gained and what’s lost and what do we want to do to address that? 


What is your personal motto?  


My personal motto is, “Just keep going.”  I don’t know if I can unpack that a little bit. Some people will have a real plan for everything, and they aim for something and go towards it.  I maybe have a little more of a “informed stagger” towards things. 


I love that. 


You know, and I like surprises and challenge. I like leading a life that’s filled with surprises and challenges.  I don’t know that I like having surprises and challenges. It’d be nice if everything was simple, but I’m doing this for a long time. I’ve been running my own practice for a long time. I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m paying attention and thinking about how things are changing. I don’t know what, of all the things we talked about, nowhere in my head is like, “And, therefore, in my own business to be successful, I will do this thing differently.” I don’t know. But like I did Improv for a few years and I’ve talked about improv for a long time as kind of a creative problem-solving mindset. And part of that is you just keep going, you just take things as they come and you add to them and you add to them and you don’t overplan. And things come out of that that you could never have made happen if you had intended to make them happen. And so, it’s a bit of a philosophy. I don’t know. I can’t say I live up to that perfectly all the time, but I think that’s what “Just keep going” models, and it goes back to one of your first questions about what I learned from my family and I think that is also what I saw growing up and probably how we all have learned to succeed as best we can, I think, in a world that you can’t control. 


My guest today has been Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting. Did I totally screw up the name?


I sympathize with you as a fellow podcast host to say somebody else’s name comfortably is hard even when you’ve asked them before the recording went on was like I said it and you said it back. Yeah. And it’s right.  Saying something out loud that somebody else’s name is hard to do authentically. 


And it’s so important. Thanks for that. If you have any questions at all about user experience, user-experience research and customer-experience research—I’m going to throw that in there too—I hope that you’ll reach out to Steve. His contact information will be linked in the show notes along with the link to his website and Linkedin profile. He’s also very active on Google user group for user experience in the Bay Area, which is how he and I originally got connected. I haven’t found a ton of value on everything he posts. I’m very appreciative, Steve, of you joining me today on the podcast. Thank you so much sir. 


Thank you so much. Really great conversation. 


All the rest of you, if you found value in this episode as much as I have or even just that 10th as much as I have, please take the 50 seconds it will take you to screenshot this, share it on Twitter, tag Happy Market Research. We’ll repost it. As always, our five-star reviews mean the world to us and help everybody else that’s like you find this content. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Oh, and by the way, I would encourage you to check out Steve’s podcast Dollars to Donuts. Again, I’ve found it very interesting and enlightening relative to, as a market research professional, being able to be relatable to user experience or user-experience research or customer experience. Right. I don’t even know what now, but anyway, something like that. Some nomenclature, very beneficial. Enjoy. Have a great rest of your day.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   

Ep. 227 – Bryant Leech of Nielsen on the Correct Application of Automation from the World’s Largest Research Firm

My guest today is Bryant Leech, Director of Design Solutions at Nielsen. Nielsen is an American information, data and measurement company that operates in over 100 countries and employs approximately 44,000. Prior to joining Nielsen, Bryant has worked as both a client side research and agency researcher. He has also been a ski instructor.  

Find Bryant Online:


Website: https://www.nielsen.com/us/en

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Social Media: @happymrxp


Website: happymr.com

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This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


In episode 227, I’m interviewing Bryant Leech, Director of Design Solutions at Nielsen, but first a word from our sponsor. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Bryan Leech, Director of Design Solutions at Nielsen.  Nielsen is an American information, data, and measurement company that operates in over 100 countries and employs approximately 44,000 employees. Prior to joining Neilson, Bryant has worked as both a client-side researcher and agency researcher.  He has also been a ski instructor. Bryant, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today. 


Thanks a lot, Jamin.  Appreciate it being here. 


Let’s start out with a conversation about your parents. What did they do and how has that informed your career?


Yeah. So, um, actually both my dad, my grandfather, even my great grandfather were actually all entrepreneurs. So I’ve always kind of grown up thinking that that was the route I’d kind go down, was some kind of business that I would be starting. But you know, I think one of the really great things was that my parents were really open to allowing me to explore whatever kind of avenues I was really interested in and kind of look into whatever I found to be interesting throughout my career and through my studies.  I did my undergrad in psychology, and from there I kind of got into the job market and had no idea really what I was going to do. And as you mentioned, I kind of had a love for the mountains. So I headed up to the mountains in Colorado and was lucky enough to connect with some people. I went to a job fair, and they had a card in front of them that said market research. And I had no idea what that was.
So I started talking with them a little bit, and it sounded like a perfect opportunity to blend a lot of my love for sort of the mountains and for data and some of the things I learned in my psychology undergrad. And from there, I basically kind of fell into the career a little bit and was kind of starting out. I was able to actually do some in market research.  I was on the client side, but it was kind of skiing around the mountain and uh, asking people questions similar to what a CLT does. And from there I kind of just found that I had a real passion for research and I ended up going from there and pursuing a master’s degree after that.


It hearkens back to my very early days in market research when I was doing a lot more in-person interviewing.  Did you find it useful having the…? Obviously, skiing is a passion of yours in a way that you actually made some money, at least beer money.  Were you able to successfully apply sort of that intuition into the research, creating a little more value on the backend of the application of that data?


Yeah, it was mostly for beer money, I will say that.  But, you know, I think at that point in my early days I was pretty lucky ‘cause I got a little bit more exposure to the management side of things.  So, I had about 20 employees at the ski resort. They were, actually, all going out and doing these in-person interviews. So, while a lot of my friends were out teaching skiing or things that that weren’t as applicable to, I would say in quotations, “the real world.”  I was able to sort of parlay some of that into real world experience and kind of talk to that. So once I actually moved on from the sort of being in a mountain environment and, actually, being in more of a corporate environment, I still had a lot of those transferable skills, which I’m really appreciative for now in that then when I transitioned into a large company, I still had some things on my resume that I could still use.  So I think it was kind of a perfect combination for me out of college for a few years.


And you were part of Affectiva, is that correct?  That was ultimately sold to Nielsen.


Yeah. Affinnova.  Yeah, so they, yeah…


Affinnova, sorry about that.


No problem.  So they were kind of a smaller startup, about 200 people that I started with after I had completed my masters and, yeah, they were about quite small, but very kind of nimble and startup, not in the real, real beginning phases of a startup, but, actually, had some processes around things.  But it was a really cool way to sort of enter the market with something that was growing at 20% or 30% a year and really had a lot of buzz going around that company.


Yeah, that was a very successful outcome for the entire organization and I think, for Nielsen, probably one of the more important acquisitions given its centricity to product development and sort of overall workflows and ingestion of insights into those. 


Absolutely.  Yeah, I think it was really a one-plus-one-equals-three sort of situation for both the companies.


What is one of the biggest challenges that you’ve overcome either personally or professionally?


So, about a year into my role with Affinnova, I was actually asked to go work in the UK.  So, from my start with Affinnova, I actually ended up moving there, and it was supposed to be a one-year assignment. I ended up loving it. So I ended up staying there for four years. One of the biggest challenges I found was actually working with the clients of different cultures on a daily basis.  So, growing up in the States, I think we tend to be quite isolated and really just work with people that have a sort of a similar background to us and similar working style. But you know, learning how to work with people from, you know… A project with people from France or Spain or Germany, all are going to have very different working styles, different things, different expectations that they’re going to have for each one of those.  I found that to be a really big challenge to begin with. You know, I was able to overcome it, I think, uh, after, you know, I would say a couple of years it almost took to really get to be proficient at knowing what those different cultures expected. But that was a pretty bit challenge for me. 


So how did you overcome it?  Was it just like a block and tackling, or did you read Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands?  I forget the name of that book.


Well, I remember the first delivery I ever had was to a Spanish client. Um, and you know, I don’t think we ever realized how much acronyms and metaphors and things that we talk about, the ways we talk in the States. You know, I went in there and I said, “Well, let me tell you, I’m going to quarterback this one for you.”  And then I went, “Wait a second. None of you understood what I just said there. And they go, “No, but we just thought it was funny. We were cracking up on the other side of the line.” So, you know, I think there’s some things you sort of learn trial and error a little bit sometimes. And I think there are also some… I had some really good mentors and people that helped me understand how to communicate effectively, how to slow down my speech, how to make sure that the clients were really understanding what I was saying and that at different levels you have to be able to communicate in different ways.  


Yeah, my experience has been very humbling.  I, growing up in America… Of course, America is in the middle of the map, right?  So the whole world has to pay attention to us, I guess. And, as I was fortunate enough to grow up in in a global context, you know, just that it, I mean it’s way more than small little things.  It gets down to big things, down to what words we use and the frameworks of situations. As you said, the metaphors on how we connect different points to people is actually really important in order to register on a global basis.  But probably for me, one of the more difficult challenges was understanding when someone understood something and when they didn’t and thinking about the difference between the Indian culture versus the Dutch culture, right, where you’ve got somebody that’s brutal to the point and then somebody else who is maybe a little bit more, uh, just trying to make me feel good. 


Absolutely.  I found the worst thing to ever hear from a British person is, “Everything is fine,” you know.


It’s literally on fire right now. 


Everything is on fire if it is fine right now.  So, you know, I think there’s a lot of those things that you just don’t know until you learn it, right, until you learn that style. But I think I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.  I mean, I think if you learn how these different cultures interact and how they communicate, it’s vitally important to our world today and how that works. 


Yeah, it’s all about the setting that context. So, tell me about a research project that you’re most proud of.  


So I had a boss, actually, just to preface this, that said,  before one of our projects kicked off, said that, “You know, this project is going to be hard, but the hard ones are the ones that you learn the most from,” which I think I’ve really taken to heart, and ‘cause I had a project not long after that came up that essentially not only took over my life and took over probably our entire office’s life in the UK for about three months. This was one of those ones where our salesperson went out, sold the project to the client, and immediately left the company after that.  So there were basically no expectations set and the client was one of the most demanding clients you can ever get on: Everything from the sample composition needed to be down to the single person in a specific region meeting this specific criteria, to really having to have spies on the ground to make sure that the work was being done. So there were a multitude of different issues we were dealing with on a daily basis with this client. But I think it was really interesting ‘cause it really taught me a lot about sort of product management solution, solution-driven management and being able to understand the intricacies of the product that I’m actually talking about. I think it taught me more than any other project about having to know the very, very minute details of everything that I’m doing. So, I think, while it may have been a very huge challenge:  nights up until 2:00 AM trying to figure this stuff out before delivery of this project, it was one of the more rewarding projects to be sort of done with. 


If you had to narrow it down, was there one specific thing that stood out that you learned a lot that you’re grateful for? Like was it technology expertise, was it methodological, was it interpersonal?  If you were to try to hone it in on some of the… I know, broad speaking is everything got better, but where would you say the big win was? 


I think, for me in that situation, it was probably just being able to really know the solution inside and out that we sell.  So, what I do now is a lot of specialty work, specifically on design research. Design research isn’t a huge piece of the market research industry overall, and it really allowed me to really become an absolute expert on every piece of the process within design that, you know, maybe I didn’t know where every number in a report came from. But I think after, you know, thousands of manhours being put into this one project and really having to dissect our product to the nth degree, that’s where that sort of mastery of the product came from too.


Isn’t it interesting how with along with that mastery comes, you know, such a heightened sense of confidence that you can walk into any situation because you’re fully armed to deal with quite literally any situation or question that’s thrown at you? The other thing, I think, is a big win on having that a level of mastery (And I love that word) is the other side of it. The confidence that the customer has when they’re interacting with you is just different than if you only knew 90%, you know, the high-level features or whatever.


Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, you know, you can only get that through going through the trenches, unfortunately, sometimes with these solutions.  Especially with Nielsen, you know, we have so many solutions. So, we sell a lot of different things to a lot of different clients and are very almost specialized in specific areas that we work in. So, yeah, to have that mastery of that product and that area I think is really important and really brings something else to the table. Being able to say I’ve done, you know, 100, 200, 300 of these types of projects or design projects for our clients really just adds another layer of confidence in how they’re going forward with something.


Do me a favor and unpack exactly what you mean by design research.


The best example I give is just, you know, if you’re trying to come up with a new package for the…  Normally what we’re doing is a lot of CPG work. So we’re doing things that come out in the grocery store; we’re kind of looking at trying to figure out what is the best package that they might come out with. Specifically, I work on a solution that you…  We’re trying to figure out a good broad exploration of different designs that they might be looking at and narrow down those designs to maybe one or two that might be the best for them to move forward with for further refinement to launch. So that tends to be the bread and butter of what we do.  We work with many different categories as well. It’s not just that we do a lot with retailers: We’re doing a lot with different in store, like quick service restaurants as well as also doing a lot of things with alcohol brands as well. So all the designs that you might see coming out for those, a lot of those have been tested by Nielsen. 


One of my very first projects with was with McDonald’s, and this goes back into the mid-nineties.  We actually built a pseudo-storefront where our, excuse me, a counter with the background, you know, the ordering menu, whatever that hung behind people and, you know.  Design was a key element, obviously, of how much money people wound up spending in that context. And it’s a really important part of research. I do think that there is a gap in terms of modern, more recently started companies and understanding how research can inform decisions.  I mean companies at scale, like a McDonald’s or you know, any real large QSR, CPG firms, of course, they have the research stages dialed in or the way that research plugs into the life cycle of the project dialed in. But I think a lot of companies that are in the last three years, five years, they don’t have that layer of sophistication.  A lot of times they’re just making, you know, either A/B choices because something’s trending of performing better and they don’t understand the “why,” or they’re operating on gut. Have you seen across your customer base any sort of steady-state increase among newer companies entering into research or employing research?


I think that’s the buzzword right now, right?  I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that more and more people are moving away from…  They’re doing research that’s more informative rather than scientific, I would almost say, right?  And so, for example, you know, our solution was kind of developed originally to explore a large number of designs, but in reality what’s happening a lot of times is maybe they’ll have three or four designs that they’re looking to go with, and they just use our product as that sort of end state. And that, you know, whatever comes out of it that’s what they launch.  And I think this sort of need for quicker, faster, you know, give mean answer and let’s move forward with this, and let’s get it in market to consumers tends to be the trend now. And I think there’s a lot of competitors out there that are going towards that quicker and faster. I don’t think I’ve seen anything launched recently or any company launched recently that’s going for that, you know, huge $100,000, $200,000 research project anymore. Everything is quicker, faster technology-based stuff from every company that I’ve seen launch recently. So yeah, I think it’s just the reality, and right now that just seems to be like we need to figure out ways to meet that need of our consumers, our clients.


I’m just unpacking this point ‘cause I think this is so important, certainly relevant for our audience.  If you think about research, Nielsen is really interesting, right, because you guys sit on this big base of syndicated perspective, longitudinal.  There’s not another single point of truth that’s referenced more often than Nielsen as it relates with product performance. When you thinking about the growth area, is that where the investment is happening?  Is the customer, the user of this data, are they the insight of market research or are they sitting outside of the traditional market research role? In other words, is it a person in charge of product or a user experience or a UI person?  


So, one piece is that I don’t really touch too much of what we call RMS data or the client data that you’d get from the scanner data.  I don’t touch too much of that piece of the business. I think it’s a great resource for us to have in the innovation space, which is where we work in.  But it’s not as much where I fall, but it’s obviously an amazing resource to have when we’re working through a project and trying to figure out where’s this client coming from, why are they needing this new research, this new design.  And to be able to add that context into things to say, “We know you’ve been shrinking at 5% a year,” and we can look in and see some of the trends across the market that might be impacting those sales figures: Who’s coming into the market recently?  And so being able to look at a lot of those things I think really helps us, but specifically on a day to day basis, I’m not working as much with that sort of data field because, as you mentioned, Nielsen is a very big buzzword but we all kind of fit within a little bit of a buckets here. 


Yeah, for sure. That makes sense. So, looking forward, how will the market research space be different in the next five years? 


I think that’s a really good question, and it’s actually something that I’m working on as well ‘cause I have a foot in two different worlds.  One of the world’s is trying to do a bit of a sales execution role for design solution. And the other one is actually doing 

a product role:  so, developing our next generation of products.  And I think a lot    
of what we’re seeing, as I mentioned, is there’s more automation. But what I’d like to see more and more of is automation with a purpose. So I think there’s a lot of companies out there that are automating solutions that allow our clients to put in, say a design or a concept or whatever it may be and quickly get an answer back.  Now I think if you peel back some of the layers of what they have, there’s not a lot of content behind a lot of what they’re posing. But it’s quick; it’s fast; it’s dirty; and it allows that client to get an answer, which is better than not having an answer and just guessing. But I think what we’re trying to do is blend the ability to do some kind of automation. But I say automation with a purpose, something that gives them that answer quickly, that works for our clients and what our clients are asking for, but not at a pace that is really undermining the integrity of the research.  And I think one of the big things for Nielsen is we really don’t want to launch anything that there’s not any integrity or any backbone to. I think there’s a lot of solutions that I see out there today… There seems to be one every few months that comes out that really just doesn’t seem to have much of a backbone to it. 


It isn’t just about speed, right?  We’ve been talking a lot in this industry for the last two years as research automation is trending. In fact, I’ll be in Cincinnati on April 10th and 11th at the MRM located…  I believe it’s on the premises of Proctor and Gamble. But anyway, so that particular event, the theme is research automation, and we’ve been hearing about that ad nauseum to your point. So it’s all predicated on the three-legged stool:  speed, cost, quality. It used to be “Pick Two”; now, you get all three. I think your point is literally the most important point that a practitioner in research needs to consider when they’re thinking about tools. And that is there needs to be a ‘why” in terms of it isn’t just about delivering against that rubric of three things. There needs to be a core element of that automation that delivers a better, whether it’s just life experience or research insight so that it informs your work on a go-forward basis.  And, to your point, I think we’re not talking enough about what that “why” is in the tools that are entering the marketplace certainly and even ones that have been established. It seems like we continue to get relegated towards those, that three-legged stool conversation. 


Yeah, and I think to your point, the balance there too is…  We all know that research budgets and a lot of companies are being cut, especially in the CPG world, but they’re not just being cut from, “You have to spend half as much.”  They’re also being cut from people at that specific company, right? So I think the difficulty is these quick and dirty solutions a lot of times rely up to you to make the analysis, and there is no one else on the backend that’s going to do any work to be able to succinctly put these five different data points together to give you a decision there.  And maybe that’s fine if you have a really experienced researcher, but that’s not always the case these days. So I think it can really lead us astray if you’re using a lot of these solutions, if there’s no one to sort of help guide that discussion or be the expert in the room on that discussion. 


So how does that fit then?  Like, and I take your point.  That’s super important and there’s not a lot of…  It’s almost like full stack developers, right: people that are capable of doing both the execution and then also the business insight context, fitting the answers into what the business should do.  Are you thinking there might be opportunities for augmented services like your FTE for hire for a week? 


Yeah, so I think the way we’re sort of approaching it is we are absolutely trying to use more automation in our system.  We have a platform called Studio that is actually a bit of a relic from our Affinnova company. That was one of the big reasons why Nielsen acquired us. That allows you to do things like uploading a concept to it or upload a design or upload different things that allows you to house those things, keep things organized and also get your results on that instead of drowning in PowerPoint decks.  So I think there what we’re trying to do is a level of automation but not to the level of some of our other competitors that are full automation where there is almost zero touch point with a person on the other end. And it’s really just you sort of almost doing your own survey monkey. It’s just got a nice sort of package around it or a nice little ribbon around it as a deal. But it’s cheap; it’s fast; it’s quick for them. And I think there’s maybe some places where that can be used, but I think it might be overused at the same time these days.


So, when you pull back in the context of today, what’s the biggest issue that’s facing market researchers like yourself?


I mean the thing I struggle with and the thing that I’m always trying to think about is what is the next big thing?  My role is pretty product-oriented, so I’m trying to think ahead a lot. And to your point, there’s a lot to do with automation, but there could also be some other white spaces and areas that could be very interesting to keep moving forward with in those next five years.  I think in terms of the biggest challenges is really how far we want to push that automation down the road and ere where that balancing act needs to be.


The Qualtrics acquisition was really interesting from a valuation perspective, right? And, of course, Nielsen being a publicly traded company, probably cares a lot about – certainly the shareholders do – about how do we start replicating that framework.  Do you think software just continues to…? We just move more and more in that space to where we’re much more of a research, insights, empowerment industry as opposed to the Sage on the Hill, keeper of knowledge.


Yeah, I think there’s going to be more and more of a push for that, right?  Even our new CEO is an ex-Watson IBMer. I mean even from that perspective; you can see how much the company and the shareholders within Nielsen are valuing that sort of experience and that sort of background:  that sort of ability to know how software and insights meld each other together and how we can sort of be the leader in that space.


You guys are sitting in such a unique spot, right?  I mean, you’re so far ahead. A six-billion business is massive, right, at any level. But in market research when you represent nearly 10% of the TAM, I mean that’s the market share. That’s a really noticeable position. And so, what you guys care about is probably certainly germane for everybody else.  Do you think in the context of growth, you guys are going to look at M & A as a strategy for your go-forward? 


I’m not as privy to know where we’re at with that sort of thing, with the M&A, as you can imagine.  Yes, considering we do have that level and my level, we don’t really know so much about where we’re at with that, but I think there’s also the ability for us to internally be able to offer succinctness even within the solutions within our wheelhouse that give us some strategic advantage as well. There’s a lot of different pieces to our business that all can kind of play well together and be able to work well together to sort of deliver better outcomes to our clients. So, you know, I think that’s a lot of what we’re working on too:  Is there different pieces we can put together here to help out the business as well


So the pieces…  I guess really the heart of my question is that the pieces are they…? Are you guys building them out, or do you see partnerships as part of the thesis?


Both I think.  I think right now, being the sort of product person, I always am looking for anything we can do.  And I think it’s really just trying to meet those client needs and offer something else that our clients don’t have right now or can’t do right now.  So that’s when I’m really looking at is how do we kind of figure out some strategic partnerships or areas that we can use our tools we already have and develop them in different ways that can work together the best.


What are the three characteristics of an All-Star employee?


That’s a good question.  I would say sort of trust, flexibility and a good team attitude, I would say.  I saw something recently that said all you need is sort of one bad egg in that team, and that team can decrease your productivity by 25%. That entire team just by having that one person that sort of either isn’t pulling their weight or it doesn’t really have a good team attitude I think is, to me, the most important thing.  I don’t think they need to be always the most brilliant employee. In actuality, when I’ve had, kids from some of the smartest schools in the country but maybe weren’t team players for the rest of the team that actually brought the entire team down in general. So what I’m looking for is really team attitude, trust and flexibility in their ability to be up for anything, really be positive, work well together with others and to really just drive through a positive attitude for the entire team and pick each other up.  So that’s what I’m always looking for in potential team members to join Nielsen and our design team, in particular.


I liked the bad egg example specifically because my wife and I have three chickens.  This weekend we were doing some cleaning of the coop, and I found an egg that turned out to be a bad egg, and it was catastrophic.  It’s a visceral connection for me, especially in that way. My framework is very similar in that is I don’t care how good of a performer somebody is technically competent or sales, beating quotas or whatever. If they’re not benefiting the overall organization and, certainly, if they’re in a negative framework, then there’s some tough conversations that are going to happen and you need to have those conversations really quick ‘cause bad fits will wreck you from an overall company perspective.


Yup, I agree. That’s kind of always been my motto. And I think I’d rather continually chug along and continually improve as a team slightly than try to make this huge jump with someone who might be a big risk to the team and the morale within the team. And that’s a huge thing I protect, is really that morale within the team and making sure that that’s strong and that people want to come to work every day. You know, we’re not curing cancer. You know, my boss told me we’re not curing cancer; we’re not here designing the next rocket that’s going to go to the moon, right?  But you know what, I want people to come in and are happy to come in and we’re happy to work every day and have a good attitude towards everybody else and like working together. And I think to be honest, those have always been the teams that far exceed expectations.


A lot of people forget about the intentionality that goes into a positive culture. Like you quite literally need to turn on the smile because you set that overall tone.  And one of the things I’ve noticed about up and coming leaders is that’s one of the big lessons that they learn and they think, “Oh, Jamin, is just always naturally happy.”  But the reality is it doesn’t matter. You have to set up framework for your entire team and entire organization in order to be able to infect them with that cultural norm. Again, it just gets down to the intentionality of driving that sort of culture. And then if you do a good job of it, then the flip side of it is the rewards are it kind of self-enforces.  So when, you know, I might be a little bit frustrated with things or maybe a lot frustrated with things, I know that I’m going to have a laugh or whatever with the other person or people. So yeah, that’s a great point. 


Yeah, well, if I woke up with the fresh eggs every morning, I think I’d be pretty happy to come on.  


You brought it up already. What is your personal motto? 


So, I would say my personal motto is, “Keep it simple, stupid.”  I’m very much in the camp that if someone doesn’t understand something you can, you can explain away however much you want, but if you’re not keeping it pretty digestible for people and making research something that they can understand, understand the insights and quickly action those and explain those to their boss or whoever else, internal stakeholders and confidently and feel and feel good about that, then you, you’ve lost, right?  So to me it’s really keeping that simplicity down and making sure that if you’ve got 20 points, we got to narrow those down to five that are really the most key, core important points that we want them to take away. I think the life today is just so busy that we really need to keep things a simple for our clients and really drive down to those areas that we really need to make an impact for them. 


Oh, that’s great.  What a joy this conversation has been!  So, my guest today has been Bryant Leech, Director of Design Solutions at Neilson. Thank you, Bryant, so much for joining me today on the Happy Market Research Podcast. 


Thanks a lot. Really appreciate it. 


And everybody else, I appreciate your time and attention. I know that I personally enjoy these conversations. If you find value in them, will you please do me a favor, screenshot the episode, share it on LinkedIn, share it on Twitter. And as always, your feedback is fantastic. You know your ratings on Apple, iTunes or wherever it is that you tune into this podcast help other people like yourself be able to find it. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day. 


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com

Ep. 226 – Emmet Ó Briain on the Right way to use Consumer Insights and how Many Researchers get it Wrong

My guest today is Emmet Ó Briain, Founder of Quiddity. Established in 2010, Quiddity offers methodologically innovative research, particularly in the use and analysis of naturally-occurring data (and especially language) in consumer and social research. Prior to founding Quiddity, Emmet spent 6 years at Ipsos as Research Development Director. Additionally, he has recently made a name for himself as the naming guru on LinkedIn. 

Find Emmet Online:


Email: emmet@quiddity.ie

Website: www.quiddity.ie

Find Us Online: 

Social Media: @happymrxp


Website: happymr.com

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


On Episode 226, I’m interviewing Emmet Ó Briain, founder of Quiddity, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com


Hi, I’m Jamin, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  My guest today is Emmet Ó Briain, founder of Quiddity.  Established in 2010, Quiddity offers methodologically innovative research, particularly in the use and analysis of naturally occurring data, and especially language, in consumer and social research.  Prior to founding Quiddity, Emmet spent six years at Ipsos as research development director. Additionally, he has recently made a name for himself on several of my threads where he has become the naming guru.  Emmet, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.  


No, thanks very much for inviting me.  It’s a distinctly uncomfortable experience, but I’m hoping to…  


So, the methodology that I use on this show is literally 75% human where we kind of tell our own story and 25% value.  Hopefully, the package is “The medicine can taste great and make us feel a little bit better as well.” 


Well, if it helps, part of my philosophy is that the 75% human is where most of the value comes from and research as well.  So there should be a nice sort of convergence there.


I love that.  Well, let’s start off.  Tell us a little bit about your parents and how did your upbringing inform your career? 


It’s a difficult question because neither of them were involved in research at all.  Both of them left school very, very early. My dad went back to education in his late 30s, ended up going back to university.  So, as a young kid, this was mind-blowing to me: there was an adult man going to college. I didn’t realize it was an unusual thing to do.  But what it taught was that it’s never too late to learn. The philosophy of life-long learning, I got that from my dad. But also, it’s great value in doing things differently.  Striking out on your own doing things maybe that other people might not encourage you to do or might discourage you to do that if you sort of have the motivation and the incentive that following your own path is rewarding intellectually, spiritually – if not, always financially – but it’s a good way to go.  So I would think that was very much an inspiration for me.   

My mother was quite creative.  She worked. I wouldn’t say her profession defined her, but she was very much into gardening.  And the idea of creative is very important to me in research. And I think it’s important for any business that you’re able to think laterally; you’re able to make connections between things that aren’t obvious.  So, I think the environment that you’re raised in just has such a huge influence on the type of values and the type of things that you see as interesting or that interests you.   


So, digging in with your dad a little bit, who went back late 30s:  Was the juice worth the squeeze, as they say? Did uh…? 


I have no idea what that means.


Sorry, so it’s, I guess, an Americanism.  


I was thinking today at the line from George Bernard Shaw.  It’s about Americans and English people being divided by a common language. 


That’s so, so great!  And that would be a perfect segway if I was ready to move on, but I’m not yet.  But talking about your dad, he invested time and money in going back and getting his education or furthering his education.  Was there a positive outcome that warranted that investment?


He became a teacher then.  


So a complete pivot on his career.  


Oh, no, so he was a fitter, (I don’t know what you call them in America, as again divided by a common language), so installing conveyers and things like that – very manual work.  He took up German and Spanish, went back to university, trained as a teacher, and became a teacher. So it was a vocation, which then, obviously, changed his life.


Wow!  That is amazing.  That’s a huge transition.  


Yeah, before he was a teacher, he was one of these people, and you meet them in life, that are almost in the wrong jobs.  Maybe, they haven’t found a path into the job they should be in, and sometimes life is just like that. He was lucky enough to find a job that he was really, really motivated by.  


Man, what a significant move, especially later in your life, right?  Being willing to step out and take that kind of a career change. Did he wind up retiring in that profession?


He did.  As you say, it takes a lot, and it’s different worlds as well.  And I think that’s one of the things I’ve always found interesting.  And not to go over: I don’t want to spend 45 minutes talking about my dad and my family.  


I don’t either.  


Hey, it’s good stuff!  One of the things was that he was born in Ireland, moved to England like a lot of people did at his time for work, then move back to Ireland.  And, when he moved back to Ireland, he was very young, but he had an English accent. So he was an outsider in Ireland. He was always a bit of an outsider.  And, for me, part of my research is very much more about sociology and psychology. So I’m interested in looking at the big picture and where things fit in within the culture.  And I think that sort of outsider-perspective was… (I’m sure he didn’t want to transfer it to me.) But it is something where you try to work out how a culture works and how do you fit in and what are the certain nuances that you have to learn to fit in or that you can even observe.  So, that sort of stuff… It’s the type of thing that a lot of people just pick up instinctively and don’t make their career. People who are successful in any walk of life have to have that sort of sensitivity to environment, but I was always interested from an analytic perspective, always sort of looking on rather than possibly actively participating.     


Right.  Talking about language, Quiddity, you started this business in 2010, I believe.  Tell me about the name.


So, the name is…  One of the things about that…  So, Quiddity means the essence of something, what makes a thing a thing, which is an awful, awful definition of something.  I know you’re interested in entrepreneurship and things like that. So you’ve got the Quiddity, you have an entrepreneur. “What makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur?”  “How do you know?” “What is it about someone that would make you recognize him as an entrepreneur?” It could be psychological characteristics; it could be the way they hold themselves, the way they interact; the way, I suppose, they are very welcoming of relationships, managing relationships and things like that.  So Quiddity is really about the essence of something.  


Yeah, as soon as I booked this interview with you, I looked it up, and it was, “The essence of a thing,” like getting to the real name.  I got to be honest: I didn’t know what the word meant, being an American.    


No, no, to be honest, most people…  It’s actually a talking point for most people when I either introduce myself or they get in contact with me.  I mean for the first few years it was… I don’t know if you’re (and I won’t judge you if aren’t) but if you’re familiar with Harry Potter.   


Of course.


In Harry Potter, Quidditch, the sport Quidditch…  Everyone thought that… People would just go, “Quidditch, is that the Harry Potter thing?”  So people thought I was some sort of… I founded a business to make a Harry Potter reference.  I like Harry Potter, but that wasn’t my motivation.   


That wasn’t the intent, no.  The reason I think it’s so relevant for our industry because our industry is bent on human understanding and discovery…  When you kind of pull back, language is the thing that… Embedded in language is culture and connectivity. It’s our lens by which we understand and process the world and really define it.  And, if you look across different languages… (I learned this very early in my career, my very first project that was in America, Europe, and Japan.) And the Japanese translation, I thought it was like the hardest thing for me to get done because every time I would have a translation company do (and these are local people in Japan) do the translation, the client would read the translation and say, “No, this is wrong.”  And so, the point being that there’s a lot of ambiguity around the way that you should ask that question in context of what the intent was and also the person that was going through it. So I started doing a lot of research actually on language at that particular point, not that I’m a linguist or expert on the subject. But it has, as I’ve gotten older, become really apparent to me that language is tool by which, obviously, we communicate, but then, ultimately, understand and process and fit into the world.  So, Quiddity – you came up with the name because you felt like it was specifically addressing what or communicating what to the market place? What was the signal with that name?      


So, I liked the idea of detailed description.  One of the things that, I think, that market research often does is examines or studies things from the point of view of, say, the client or the corporation or organization that’s trying to understand, which gives a particular perspective, and it sort of emphasizes, I suppose, the corporate priorities or the client priorities, which is absolutely fine.  But there’s another perspective, which is the perspective of, I suppose, sort of the more human-centered but also trying to understand a phenomenon within the broader culture. So there’s two moves: The first move is putting the client’s perspective to the rear and putting the customer’s perspective ahead of it. But then there’s a second move, which is then putting that customer perspective within a broader context.   And I think that helps you get at the essence of something. So it’s just a, you know, like it’s taking research seriously, and it’s trying to promote a perspective that I think is perhaps not used as much within market research.   


That’s really interesting. Can you give us a specific project?  Obviously, you probably can’t name the client or details of outcome, but like an example of how it’s played out.


Yeah. So, it’s not incredibly, well, I’ll say it’s not incredibly unusual. It is unusual because it’s such a small perspective of say the overall market research industry, but it’s aligned with broader sort of cultural approaches like semiotics and ethnography. The approach I use is discourse analysis, which is based on language. So what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to study and investigate cultural phenomenon. So they’re the things that are shared by people rather than looking at the things that are like emotions or needs or motivations that are the properties of individuals.  I’m looking at phenomenon that exist within the broader culture. An example of that might be one of the things I do a lot for advertising companies is early stages of creative development or, when they’re working out a brand proposition, they might have a particular idea that they want to see, what sort of conversations are happening within the broader culture.

I said I have a preference for naturally occurring data, and that just means that data that isn’t necessarily provoked by research.  So one of the things that would be online conversations.  So an example would be a car manufacturer.  We’re interested in looking at proposition around electric vehicles.  And the proposition they’d hit on was the car of tomorrow.  Now, I might be misremembering this. It could’ve been the car of the future was the car of tomorrow.  And they wanted me to look at and see what sort of cultural groups or what sort of cultural discourses that resonated with.  And there were three sorts of areas where that idea resonated or didn’t resonate. One was among very environmentally friendly people, who didn’t drive a lot.  Basically, they saw electric vehicles as the car of tomorrow because they saw moving towards, you know, a society which was less reliant on the automobile. So it was more environmentally friendly. So the car of tomorrow actually meant a future that there were fewer cars. There was another group of people that were early adopters. They liked electric vehicles ‘cause they were a new thing and they were a new technology, but they weren’t particularly motivated by the idea that it was new motor technology. They just liked any new technology. So they were also early adopters with computers, earlier adopters with home heating systems, early adopters with anything. Again, the idea of the car of tomorrow, it wasn’t the car that the motivating factor; it was the fact that it resonated with some of the sorts of the culture of early adopters. People who are looking to buy a new car, the car of tomorrow actually had a negative connotation. So one of the discourses around electric vehicles is that the technology is still immature, still not quite mature, you know, for long drives. It’s not robust enough. So the car of tomorrow was something that was actually undermined amongst, you know, sort of the bulk of motorists because they saw the car of tomorrow as being something not for today. So I was looking at essentially the cultural discourses that were happening within society, both say within news reporting, online talk, you know, going to car groups, talking with them and things like that.  It’s this idea that we can get insights from outside the consumer, from outside the client that exists within the culture and they’re the types of things that are sometimes underexamined, I believe.   


Yeah, that’s such a great illustration of how context is really important in language, informing kind of the, not kind of, exactly the messaging that needs to go out to the market to resonate with them. So there has been a lot of transition inside of market research, and I mean market research as a broad insights category.  So you have obviously consumer experience, which is just blowing up right now, growing at a like a 22% year over year for the next five years is projected.  You have user experience, which has been growing, which is predominantly centered more on qualitative assessments. What do you see as the role of insights in a modern brand and how do you think it’s going to evolve over the next five years?


Not that I’m a cynic or critic or a contrarian.  (I am a bit partly of all three of those things.)  From my perspective, sometimes I think that insight is used too much as a crutch:  so as a way, as a basis for making decisions rather than a basis for informing decisions.  And I think in the past it’s a phenomenon that’s accelerated.  You know, in the past 10 years, I’d say. There’s very much a managerial orientation towards insights.  So they’re used essentially to make internal decisions a lot of the time.  And what I mean make decisions, I don’t mean someone gets these insights and goes, “Oh, let’s see what we can make of this. Let’s get another bit of evidence.”  I think sometimes the insights are used as a proxy for decision-making. And I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I don’t think that’s the value of insights.

So I think – I’m not entirely sure – but I think there is a recognition that this is happening and there is, you know, a push back against just talking about insights in terms of de-risk, you know, just talking about insights in terms of making things safer or talking about…  And going back to discourse analysis, If you think about always talking about insights as a way of making things safer, of making things secure, of de-risking, it’s very much a perspective that is at odds with an entrepreneurial mindset, which is about taking a gamble, taking a risk, being creative, being innovative.  So I think the language around insights…  Sometimes we have to be careful about how we talk about insights because the way in which we talk about them constructs what they are and determines to a certain degree, how they’re used. One of the things I’d worry about is that we don’t talk about insights as the basis for creativity, as basis for making connections between different ideas and talking about them positively. So, as you said, insights is a broad chart. So, obviously, there are forms of insight and forms of research which absolutely have to be used for security and have to be used for making sure that decisions made are secure and are based on robust evidence. But at the same time, I don’t think that can be all of insights. And I think that the language has to ensure that it covers, you know, the possibility for insights to be a source of creativity and a source of innovation as well.


That’s an interesting point of view. You know, and you’re right that it’s all about data-driven decisions because those are supposedly going to create the best possible outcomes. When you look at the companies that are widely successful, especially recently, you’ve got like Shopify and Zoom, who also did an IPO.  Shopify, of course, I think is in Canada.  So you know, and that’s just two, right? There’s a lot of other ones.  With respect to those IPOs, you listen to the founder’s stories and there wasn’t, I mean, I would say it was more like a stumbling along as opposed to this like real clear, laser-focus point of view on this, Well, I will do this.  This is the input and this will be the output.”


I think, you know, that’s essentially how I would see…   Certainly, while I do quantitative research and I have a background in quantitative research, most of the research I did, vast bulk, is qualitative.   And one of the things I like about qualitative research is that it’s often easier to have strategic conversations around qualitative research because there isn’t the absoluteness, there isn’t the certainty.  Sometimes quantitative results can be a bit restrictive in what you can do with them. So I like the idea of insights as being, you know, as you said, a sort of, you know.  A lot of entrepreneurs, not that they’re stumbling around, but you know, you don’t necessarily…  There’s a serendipity about, you know, some of the things that happen, big businesses, you know, where, which necessarily can’t be foreseen.  But I liked the idea that insights are used as a way of illumination rather than support.

That’s the old joke about how a drunkard uses a lamppost:  so he uses one for support. We should use them instead for illumination. I would like the idea of insights to be used, you know, more positively. Sometimes I think there is a discourse of risk and a discourse of danger and a threat of, you know, not having enough evidence when the very best evidence will always be, you know, partial.  I suppose is one thing to keep in mind.  People talk about MPS and criticized MPS.  Absolutely, every methodology has its flaws. What’s important is to recognize that no solution, no approach to research is partial.  And really the best thing to do is to be fairly liberal about the range of research approaches that you use. I think that’s sometimes hard when you have a very structured approach to research.


Yeah, I like that.  I like the squishiness associated with it, but then also the discipline associated with that point of view, right? It’s the quant tells us what and the qual tells us why and really understanding and uncovering and then creating a narrative around the data.  You know, we don’t, nobody has 2.3 kids. It’s hard for us as humans to be able to view the world through a lens of, you know, absolute sort of pie charts and what have you.


You know, all those representations are necessary, but they’re always partial. And I think that’s something that’s sometimes forgotten is that whatever our 100, 200 slides, you know, deck of slides says, it’s always partial.  I think if there’s one thing that I would like the insight industry really to take on is that idea of more of a critical perspective about the limitations of the…  There’s nothing wrong with it, you know, with being partial, you know, being limited.  But I think there’s a…  Sometimes there’s a reluctance to talk about the limitations of particular approaches or methodologies because, you know, we’re operating commercial businesses and no one wants to go out and go, “Hey my, my approach is, is partially flawed.”  It’s not a, a really great proposition.  But that’s the truth.  And I think clients understand that, and I think it’s to have the confidence to say, “Hey, my approach is partial, but it gives you this perspective, and it emphasizes this particular insight.”

And there’s another perspective, which emphasizes this element of insight. They’re different. They could be complementary. Sometimes, they’re even competitive, but I don’t think it’s helped by someone coming along and saying, “Look, I can predict 100% of what all of your customers are going to do in the next week,” because you know it’s not real. It’s not realistic. And clients, you know, are experienced enough. They see enough venders but they know the limitations of different approaches. So I think, you know, there is a degree to which there’s a methodological maturity where we acknowledge that there are limitations to certain approaches.  And I think what that does is it opens up the room for lots of different approaches rather than undermining trust in a particular solution. I think that transparency and that accountability actually promotes, you know, confidence. If you’re acknowledging that there are limitations, then at least somebody you know is going to believe that you’re being transparent. 


So with that framework, are you seeing like your projection over the next five years, you know, your crystal ball, which all researchers like to think we have, right?  Do you think there’s going to be material growth in one specific methodology?


The one thing I think, you know, because I do look at things from a sort of a social, cultural lens, is that I don’t think market research is exceptional, you know, in that it’s not different from any other industry. And I think the current trends and the trend of the last 50 years since the beginning of the market research industry has been a trend towards more automation. I think that’s absolutely, you can’t get away from that. I don’t necessarily think that’s 100% a good thing. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing in other industries, particularly within the tech industry, is more consideration of the broader context for how technology is used. And I think that’s something that could be interesting from an insight perspective. So when you look at AI, and I’m just back from Florence actually, where the ACL conference was on.  I wasn’t there. My wife is a computational linguist, so I have an ear to all these things that are happening in AI. Is that explainable A4I is going to be a huge thing in terms of AI. So there’s a concern that a lot of artificial intelligence systems and the use of algorithms that they’re not necessarily transparent, that we don’t really understand how they work and that they might actually, I suppose, reproduce bias rather than be a very unbiased objective view.  So I think that’s interesting from an insight point of view. So while there will be this emphasis of automation, there’s nothing you can do.  As companies get larger, the incentive and the need to automate more parts of the organization, you know, increases. So I think that’s non-negotiable. HR is automated; finances automated; of course, insights are going to be to be automated.     

But I think parallel to that for the insights industry particularly, I think there will be this need for greater consideration of the transparency of certain approaches. And within AI, that means more sociologists, more ethnographers, more people from the humanities, who are being brought in to complement this very technical, very automated processes to try and add a layer of an interpretability to them and to try and add, I suppose, to try and explain them and help people understand that when they’re using these automated systems, you know what’s going on inside and the sort of assumptions that they’re built on, the sort of assumptions that they emphasize.  So that would be, I suppose I’m saying that because I’m a sociologist and I’m hoping that that will be a big trend, but I do believe that you have to look to other industries to see where the trends are.


I would imagine being married to a computational linguist, you don’t win many arguments.


Depends what they’re about.


Probably enough said on that subject. So tell us what is your personal motto?  


Oh, God.  Honestly, I, sorry, I did see that question. I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t.  I have, I wouldn’t. I’m not a complicated person, but I am a complicating person. So I tend to ask more questions than give answers. So I couldn’t ever have a single, have a single, oh sorry. What’s my motto?  No, I don’t have a motto. I was going to say something about in… I was going to say something about in the presence of data. So, I even though we’ve had this great conversation, just you know, shooting the breeze, I do like having a piece of data to discuss things while we’re just discussing them. So that’s what I like about insights. One of the things that brought me to market research was when you’re having an argument and you have a big piece of data and you’re using that as, you know, as maybe a starting point for discussion or you know, “What do we make of this?  What does this say?” So, you know, like discuss. I do like discussing things in the presence of data, but that’s certainly not a motto that would be put on my tombstone.  


You know what?  Data creates this like super comfortable.  My worst moment is happy hour, like the social things that happen at events.  That is like, all I want to do is not go to that. But I love sitting down and talking about business problems or, like you said, data or something like that tangible, it creates a security.


No, that is…  Look, that is my…  I mean I’m very frustrating as a colleague because I do, I only really feel comfortable talking.  I like talking about work. You know, like I’m interested in it so I, you know, I like it. You know, I like talking about work and as you say, you know, there’s a certain security. But actually, you know, you find that a lot of people who are really interested in what they’re doing like talking about work as well.


My guest today has been Emmet Ó Briain, founder of Quiddity.  Thank you, Emmet, very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast. 


Thank you very much, Jamin.  


Everyone else, if you found value in this episode, please take time: screen capture, share it.  I really appreciate that. It helps other industry professionals like yourself find it. Emmet, it has been a joy.  I will, of course, include your contact information in the show notes, but just in case people don’t click there, how would somebody get in contact with you?


LinkedIn or email Emmet@Quiddity.ie


And, of course, email is probably a really good way to do that, but that information will be on the website and in the show notes.  Have a great rest of your day, everybody. And Emmet, again, thanks.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com

Ep. 225 – Jenny Karubian – Hacks for Building a Successful Market Research Agency

My guest today is Jenny Karubian, Founder and CEO of Ready to Launch. Founded in 2014, Ready to Launch is a consultancy based in LA that helps firms launch new ideas, products, and technologies that better serve their customers. Jenny has extensive experience as an ethnographic researcher and is a professor of anthropology, sociology and gender studies.

Find Jenny Online:


Website: https://readytolaunchresearch.com

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Social Media: @happymrxp


This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


On Episode 225, I’m interviewing Jenny Karubian, founder and CEO of Ready to Launch, but first a word from sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com


My guest today is Jenny Karubian, founder and CEO of Ready to Launch.  Founded in 2014, Ready to Launch is a consultancy based in L.A. that helps firms launch new ideas, products, and technologies that better serve their customers.  Jenny has extensive experience as an ethnographer researcher and is a professor of anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. Jenny, thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.   


Thanks for having me, Jamin.


So, you started an agency 2014.  I’ve just got to start the conversation with, “Why in the world did you start an agency?”  Obviously, I’ve started a couple of companies. It’s really hard to start a company. An agency is like, for me, would be considered one of the really hard, hard things because you got to be hunter and you’ve also got to be a farmer and you’ve got to be invoicing and the whole rest of it as well.     


So I think some hybrid of “I’m a glutton for punishment” but “I’m also very dedicated” probably why I started the agency.  But, also, really, I’m very much in love with the research process, and I also enjoy working with clients. I enjoy so many aspects of working in the research industry that working for a much larger agency doesn’t give the opportunity to work on projects from end to end the way that it does in an ownership and leadership position.  So I think that that motivated a lot of the reasons why I wanted to start my own business.  


So I get the “why” you’d want to start it maybe, but there’s risk when you start a business, right?  Not only is it a time thing there’s a lot of money there. What gave you that courage to be able to step out and do it yourself?


Initially, it was out of necessity.  So, when I finished school, I got out of school right in the middle of the financial crisis.  And, at that time, while recovery was just starting to happen, there really weren’t any jobs for recent graduates.  And what I found is that companies were willing to give me project work, which now everyone calls the “gig economy.”  Nobody called it the gig economy at that point; they just called it, “We’ll take you on as a contractor but we won’t give you a full-time job.”  And so, at the time, I needed work, and I started picking up contracts as much as I could and networking and trying to work in market research on just a contract basis.                    

And I didn’t realize that I had started my own company until I was actually chatting with one of my clients, and my client was complaining that he had to go to an all-day meeting.  And I said, “Oh, I don’t have to do those.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why you own your own business.” And I thought, “Oh, I own my own business! Look at that.” I hadn’t really thought about it that way:  It never came across in my mind as “This is a risk” or weighing it against other options. I just was very focused on that I wanted to work in research because I loved doing research, and I was going to do it however I needed to.  And then, after doing that for five years just as a freelancer, then I started an agency but, at that point, I was so comfortable with it that that kind of fear and anxiety that you’re describing just wasn’t there at point.    


Yeah, there is something about like when I started Decipher, almost I just didn’t care about it not working.  I mean I wanted it to work a lot. But it was worst case scenario is I’m going to get another job. Fear didn’t really enter into the equation.  Whereas, conversely, I’m starting a new business, which will be announced relatively soon… I have a lot more sort of like… You know life has a way of educating you on how terrifying it can be.  Oh, my gosh. All on a sudden, you hear a stat like, I don’t know, 8 out of 10 startups fail or whatever, and it starts informing that fear factor, which, to you point, I think, if it doesn’t exist, in a lot of ways, ignorance can be bliss.    


Right, right.  And I really like doing my own thing.  I don’t answer well to authority, just to be honest.  I do much better kind of running my own show. And so, just getting a little taste of freelancing at the very beginning set me off on this path to want to do my own thing so much so it’s scarier…  The idea of going and working for someone else from 9 to 5 is much more frightening than having a business that may or may not stay afloat. It’s scarier giving up my freedom.  


Interesting.  Which is funny, right, because you think about how much time you spend inside of the business and it’s probably a lot more than you’d spend working for somebody else.


Oh, absolutely.  I wouldn’t work crazy hours for somebody else that I work for myself.  Absolutely not. But, when it’s for myself, it’s much more fulfilling, and it gives me a sense of purpose whereas I don’t know if I would have…  I feel that if I were working at two o’clock in the morning on some company initiative for someone else that I would feel pretty resentful versus working on it for myself.  Then, there’s that rush of adrenalin of “Hey, this could work” or the satisfaction of working on something that I think could be really successful.     


I heard a podcast recently, and they were talking about entrepreneurship and what really makes entrepreneurs versus people that excel inside of established businesses like iconic firms like Google or Facebook or whatever agencies.  And they actually boiled it down to really grades in high school and college. And they said that people that get straight A’s or excel in grades in academia are oftentimes really more bent on refining and improving current processes whereas people that tend maybe not do as well in academia will be a little bit more in the rebellious or like “I don’t want to spend my time here.  I want to spend it where I want to spend it” sort of framework. So, you’re kind of interesting in that, obviously, you’re a professor of anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. So I have to believe that you have a stellar track record in academia.  


High school, not so much.  




I’ve had some theories about this.  I believe that, once people go into the higher levels of academia…  So, I was ABD when I left graduate school, which translates to All But Dissertation.  So, I spend six years doing graduate training, essentially. At those levels, there’s very little that’s translatable to working on teams and doing things that are in the work place because at that level it’s all about training, individual work and individual thought.  At that point, there’s no group projects; there’s really no working with other people; the focus is only on the individual mind. And so, I think that coming out of that, the idea of going and working on teams and working in big companies really wasn’t part of my mindset because I’d been trained as an individual for such a long time.  Although it might be a little bit different in the lower levels of college, but once the Master degrees are completed and you get into those higher levels, it changes quite a bit.


Interesting.  So, a successful founder, congratulations. 




What advice would you give somebody who is starting a business in this space today?  


I think that I know a lot of people like myself who started as moderators and worked, have started agencies as a result or people who are moderating and are thinking about growing.  And one of the key pieces of advice is that, if moderating is all that they want to be doing or reporting or analyzing (kind of the research process), if that’s the only piece they want to be doing, then I wouldn’t recommend starting an agency because really they should only be doing it if they’re OK with doing all of the other business processes ‘cause I think that’s something I didn’t really expect.  I came to this as a moderator/researcher and, all of a sudden, I’m spending very little of my time doing that work anymore. I do a portion of it, but so much of my time is spent running the business. And so, I think that would be the advice: is be ready to be doing not just the research skills but also a whole lot of operations and management and invoicing and things like that that are more on the business end they need to be prepared for.       


Yeah, a lot of people, I think, have this misnomer where it’s “I’m going to spend my time doing the stuff I love and I’m really good at.”  Maybe if you’re technically inclined, that might be coding or, if you’re in sales, it might be sales or whatever project delivery, project delivery.  But the reality is you actually spend a lot less time in that space and wind up having to hire out that sort of expertise so that you can focus on the actual business function and making sure that the wheels don’t fall off the bus.    


Absolutely.  I feel as though I’m spending a lot of time making up for the MBA that I never got and reading a lot of books ‘cause I never went to business school.  I’ve never even taken a business class, but yet I’ve owned a business for five years. So I do read quite a bit to try and fill in that gap. So maybe that would be a secondary piece of advice for the entrepreneur that wants to start in this:  if you don’t have a business background, you should probably get to reading as many business books as you can to make up for it.  


So have you surrounded yourself with some people in your network that you use as kind of references that might have that business expertise?


Yes, and I’ve hired my team also.  I have some people on my team that are much more on the business side than on the research side, and that’s been very, very helpful.  So, a couple of my research team, they all have backgrounds similar to me, but then I have some people on marketing and project management that much more on the business side and the technology side, and that’s been very helpful.   


So, I combed through your website yesterday in preparation for this.  I, actually, found something very interesting, at least to me, and unique inside of the market research space as it relates to a consultancy.  So, what you’ve done is you’ve got a recommended set of methodologies that are set by specific verticals or industries such as beauty, tobacco/cannabis, alcohol, food and beverage, health care and pharma.  The reason I think that is so unique… And just to describe it to the users, you would select what your industry is and then it’ll come up with a set of (I’ll call it four, but it is a different number) of standardized approaches, methodologies like ad testing or whatever, A&U or what have you, that would be utilized in that specific industry.  So I was curious what’s the strategy around that. Is it more of proof of expertise or is it you like guiding the user in terms of where your area of specialty is?   


So, that has a couple of objectives.  No. 1 – We attract a lot of startups to our agency.  I think part of it is because the name Ready to Launch is just a little bit sticky and appeals to the startup community.  So a lot of folks who call are startups. A lot of them have never done research before, and they’re calling us and they’re looking for a little bit of education.  So that piece was to give a little bit of client education so that, if they can find an industry that is relevant to them, then they can get an idea of what kind of research they might want to do.  Most of time when I have clients who call that have not done research before, typically they say they want either a focus group or a survey. You and I know that there are a variety of different methods that be used but, for folks who are new to this game, they are not aware.  So they usually use one of those two words. That was part of the motivation for having these recommended approaches by industry was to show what we can do. And those are based off of past projects that we had that have been very successful. So those methodologies, that wasn’t just something that we made up; that was based off of past projects that we’ve done and just to give them an idea of what they might want to be doing if they really haven’t thought through it yet.               


That’s actually really powerful when you think about it because it immediately…  As a lead comes in, then it immediately frames for you how you need to talk to them and what specifically about.  I think, at minimum, it creates a shortcut in the relationship as to is it fit or not fit and also it creates a ton of social trust because you’re referencing a white paper or previous experiences that have had successful outcomes, I guess I should say.  That’s a really interesting and cool hack that you’ve applied. It almost felt like one of those self-serve kinds of options but, obviously, it’s not. It kind of like funnels down, but it’s a really cool hack.     


Thank you, and I feel that it’s been pretty effective ‘cause a lot of times when clients call, they’ve looked at that and they’ve gone through it before they’ve even gotten on the phone with me, which is wonderful.  That was kind of the point of it so that they can get a little bit of education before they get on the phone and they can have an idea of what kinds of ways we might approach their category and also let them know that we have expertise in that category.  Oftentimes, one of the questions people ask is, “Well, what do you research?” The truth is we research everything, but that’s a little bit nebulous for people who aren’t familiar with how market research works. So that’s why we have it broken down industry by industry so that people can see things that are relevant to them, projects that we might have done in the past that could be relevant to the kind of work they’re trying to do.     


Of all the people I’ve interviewed, you have the most extensive experience in ethnographic research.  How does ethnography fit into your approach?


To begin with, ethnography is my training and my background.  That’s how I came into the industry initially from anthropology.  So really informs the kind of work. It informs all of our in-person approaches. Most of the researchers on my team were also trained academically.  So, a lot of it is a viewpoint, and that viewpoint is that in order to really understand, our consumers is we have to know them as people. And in order to get to know people as people, we need to sit with them and talk with them and see what their lives are like and understand their context and understand them as whole people:  people that have families and homes and messy lives and things like that. So, I think that the approach, even though every project isn’t ethnographic, the ethnographic viewpoint informs all of the research that we’re doing in terms of understanding consumers at that very human level.      


You think about some of the big projects, big breakthrough projects that have happened inside of the industry.  One of my favorite examples is the refrigerator box that I think it was Coke came up with (maybe, it was Pepsi).  Anyway, basically they take, I think, it’s 18 cans and it fits nicely inside of your refrigerator, right? You, of course, I’m sure remember the story.  So, the ethnographers would live with the families. They identified that the families would go to Costco; they would buy these big things of Coke or Pepsi, so soda, and they would then, because they’re so big, they didn’t fit in the refrigerator, and then they would put it inside of their garage where it would sit ‘cause they’re never cold and they’re out of reach when it’s time to drink.  A by-product of that ethnography was to create this nifty, little (it’s even used for beer now, right?) box that you could basically just prop up. It’s fits really tightly in your refrigerator. So, it’s nice. Are you doing that level of ethnography for some of your clients?        


Sure.  Yeah, we certainly do.  And then we’ve done a lot of things that are really foundational.  So, we did a study. It was very high-profile. So I can talk about it because it’s been published and presented many, many times (this isn’t confidential) that we did run for the boating industry a couple of years back.  There’s an agency that handles all the marketing for the boating industry, and they had a big research initiative to find out who are their consumers. They had an idea in their minds of who their consumers were, but they realized that that may not actually be true.  And so, we went all over the country, and we met people who were looking to buy boats. And we talked to people about all the things that they do for fun and how they spend their leisure time, how they spend time with their families, what did they do before they had families.  And what we came up with was this very interesting portrait of potential boat owners that was very different from what the assumption was in terms of their target consumers. So, their target consumers up until that point were essentially middle-aged men who were in the kind of affluent class.  And what we found, especially in more coastal states, is that a lot of young families wanted to have boats. And the reason why was because most of them had traveled quite extensively and had very adventurous lives before they settled down and had kids. And so, having a boat was something they aspired to because it was a way to have adventures on a much more local basis without having to put their whole family on a plane or do something like that, and it was something they could do to have a daytime adventure without having to run and backpack in Europe or something like that.  And we found a lot of different segments, a lot of different nuances. And, essentially, it’s completely transformed the way that the boating industry is marketing as well as who they’re marketing to and taking into account this much younger consumer and what that looks like.


What kind of timeframe is around a project like that?  To your point, it’s such a foundational piece of knowledge that would really inform the whole thing, right? 


It took a year; that took a solid year.  


OK, yeah.


‘Cause we had to do some segmentation work at the beginning even to understand who they were.  Once that was done, then we could do the ethnography. And then we did a follow-up study to that at the other end, talking to people who had gotten rid of their boats and why because part of the goal is to get people to buy boats but then the other part was getting them to keep them.  And so, that was the other challenge. Once we added on that additional piece, that took two years. So these ethnographic studies are much lengthier, especially when we’re doing a lot of travel around the country and multi-market and multi-segment, things like that. They are a much bigger time commitment, and they tend to be a little bit higher profile.  


So, kind of on the flip side, we’ve seen a rise in market research technology firms.  These are usually more like quick-hit-type insight framework – some of them, not all of them, but some of them.  Many of them are focused on qualitative solutions at quantitative base sizes. What are you seeing that you think is interesting from a marketing research technology perspective that’s kind of up and coming in our space?   


So, what you said about using a qualitative approach with quantitative sizes makes me think of Remesh specifically.  That’s a really interesting tool to use when we have… Sometimes, clients will come to us with… They want qualitative work but we can tell that they are very quant-minded.  And so, when we have quant-minded clients who… They want to do a focus group but they want… Sometimes, they’ll say, “Oh, well, maybe we can have 100 consumers, and we can just do 15 or 20 focus groups or something that,” which isn’t very efficient or cost-effective.  That’s when we really recommend using these kinds of tools that are hybrid with qual and quant because we can get that qual nuance but then we have the quant numbers to back it up. So, that’s, I think, really interesting, and I’ve found that clients really like that. Conversely, the other approach is, obviously, to do qualitative and then do a more traditional survey or something like that afterward to validate the results.  So it’s collapsing these two phases into one. So that’s interesting and exciting, and I’m finding clients like that quite a bit. And then, I’m also seeing a lot of tools for doing agile work, which is great. I’ve done a lot of work with Discuss.io in the past where we’re doing kind of agile insights. I presented with some people from their team about some methodologies we’d come up with where we can go from recruit to report in seven days.  That’s some really interesting and fast-moving, fast-paced kind of research that I find really exciting.  


So, Discuss.io, they’ve hit hard, right?  They came out of the Unilever space and then the incubator that Unilever has and then got quickly a global footprint, which I thought was very interesting from a respondent point of view and difficult to do.  It’s hard at a quant basis but it’s even harder at a qualitative basis to do that. Do you see those technologies, whether Remesh or others, as maybe channel partners? Again, this is just me talking: I still think there’s a huge space for agencies to help the brands with even the integration of these tools and utilization of the insights.     


What do you mean by channel partner?  Tell me a little bit more about that.


Sorry, what I mean specifically (and I might have been using the wrong word) but is that… almost like a co-sell opportunity because they have, presumably, large customer bases and broad reach, but they’re not necessarily deep within those relationships.  So, they’re not doing a year-long ethnography; they’re doing these quick-hit insight engagements, which, of course, are SaaS models or whatever. But my point is that they’re hundreds or maybe a few thousand dollars as opposed to what a normal agency would charge for these types of projects.  So, my question is really in line with, “Do you see a partnership opportunity with technologies like this that”, like “Are you looking for a preferred partner to help expand or install the insights in a meaningful way inside of your potentially new customer base?”  


Sure, Discuss.io has leveraged my agency for the last five years.  When Discuss.io was in its infancy, so was my agency. And so, we’ve been partnering on a lot of high-profile projects over time.  Most specifically, there’s a global Mondelez study that they’ve presented with IIeX and a few other conferences. There was a big global initiative, and we partnered with them on that.  And that was run, I think, in 15 different countries. And so, we partnered with them on a variety of different qualitative services, including all of the analysis and a lot of moderating and different things like that.  We’ve done quite a bit with them and also, we partnered with them in terms of… If they want this kind of recruit to report the really quick-turn stuff, our agency is trained and is knowledgeable on how to work that with them and the clients.  So, if clients come to them and they want one of these very quick-turn projects, they’ll leverage our agency on something like that.  

A really good example that we worked on a study for a client.  They had come up with a new food product, and they wanted to know how to position it.  And so, over the course of two days, we did ten interviews in two days, and in between each interview, their design team was working on different kind of design elements for it and product positioning.  And so, we would do an interview; the design team would be listening in. Based off of what came out in the interview in terms of what people were interested in for this food product, they would design a label for that and then we would test it on the next one.  And then, we kept refining it and refining and refining it. By the time we got to interview No. 10, they had assets that they could show for a company-wide meeting that they were going to be doing for presenting their new food product to the whole company. And so, we were able to get through that in just two days in terms of the interviewing and then one more day to turn around the report.  So, it was really efficient, and it was a very good tool for the kinds of things that they needed, but I don’t know how many other… That’s a really specialized kind of approach that we worked on with them.          


Totally.  Those partnerships take a ton of time to develop.  And it’s interesting that you’re experiencing that kind of connection with…   There’s a right place, right time, and then also fit is really important, but the reason I bring it up…  And I wrote a real brief blog post on LinkedIn recently to this point. But I interviewed an insights professional, market research professional at Georgia Pacific recently, and in that interview, she’s telling me about how the face of partnerships has really evolved from a kind of this wholesale outsource model to a “I might do the data collection, but I want somebody to walk alongside me on the analytics and implications to the business.”  So, the size of her engagements, interestingly enough, are about the same, but they’re just choosing to spend a lot less money on the actual operational consideration and a lot more money on the implications side of it.       


Mm, hmm, which is what we’ve done in a lot of ways with Discuss.


Last question and then we’ll get you out of the hotseat.  So, what is the one project, even though we’ve talked about a couple already, that you are most proud of?


So, we’re in an ongoing client relationship with a non-profit organization that’s in the oncology space.  And so, we do a lot of research for them; in fact, I think we’re going to working on, I think, 14 projects this year in 2019.  And so, we do a lot of work in the oncology space, trying to help make patients’ lives better, essentially. And so, there’s a lot of different kinds of materials that we put together with them or assessing their needs.  And this runs across a variety of different oncological spaces. And I think I’m most proud of that because it really feels like we’re making a difference: we’re talking with patients; we’re talking with their caregivers; we’re talking to people who are really at their most vulnerable and looking for ways to make their lives better.  And so, I’d say that’s probably what I’m most proud of at this point just because it feels like it has a real impact on people’s lives.  


Gosh, that’s actually…  That’s pretty meaningful point of view.  I love that, I love that dual purpose. So, my guest today has been Jenny Karubian.  Jenny, if somebody wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that?    


They can either go on the website, which is readytolaunchresearch.com, all spelled out.  Or they can email me at jenny@readytolaunchresearch.com or find me on LinkedIn – Jenny Karubian.


Jenny, thanks so much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thank you.


Everyone else, really appreciate your time.  As always, I hope that you found a ton of value inside of this episode.  Please reach out to Jenny if you have questions about any of this kind of stuff.  I’m going to give you a little spoiler: She has some marketing expertise as well; so, if I were you and I was an agency, I would at least ping her and say, “Jamin mentioned this.  What do you think?” That’s all I got for you guys today. As always, like, share. It goes a long way in helping other people like yourself find these episodes. Have a great rest of your day.  


This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com  Have a great rest of your day.  

Ep. 224 – Michael Yaksich – How one of the Fastest Startups in the Silicon Valley is Using Market Research

My guest today is Michael Yaksich, Director of Customer Strategy at Cruise. Headquartered in San Francisco, Cruise is a self driving technology company that will offer a ride hailing service initially in San Francisco. Prior to joining Cruise, Michael has worked in insights at Hyundai, BrandIQ, Cadillac, and Honda.

Find Michael Online:


Website: https://getcruise.com

Find Us Online: 

Social Media: @happymrxp


This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by Clearworks. Clearworks is an insights, innovation, and customer-experience company. They help clients understand their customers better, identify opportunities for innovation, and create products, services, and experiences that matter. Their clients are diverse in size and industry but share one important thing: a passion to drive more business by driving more meaningful human connection. For more information, please visit them at www.clearworks.net.


On Episode 224, I’m interviewing Michael Yaksich, the Director of Customer Strategy at Cruise, but first a word from our sponsor.


This episode is brought to you by Clearworks.  So, we have a couple of sponsors on our show. I just want to underscore how much I appreciate those of you who have sponsored the Happy Market Research Podcast.  It makes a ton of value to the ecosystem that is actually transcending market research right now. I say “transcending”; that’s probably the wrong framework, but exceeding, moving beyond into user experience research as well as data analytics and insights.

Clearworks, thank you so much for your sponsorship.  For those of you who don’t know, they are insights and innovation and customer experience company.  They help their clients understand their customers better, identify opportunities for innovation, and create products, services, and experience that actually matter.  Their clients are diverse, both in size and industry, probably like all of ours, but they do share one important thing, which is a passion to drive more business by driving more meaningful human connections.  You can find them online at www.clearworks.net.  Again, it’s www.clearworks.net.  And again, thank you so much for your time.     


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  My guest today is Michael Yaksich, Director of Customer Strategy at Cruise. Headquartered in San Francisco, Cruise is a self-driving technology company that will offer a ride-hailing service initially in San Francisco.  Prior to joining Cruise, Michael has worked in insights at Hyundai, BrandIQ, Cadillac, and Honda. Michael, thanks for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Yeah, thanks for having me.


So, tell us a little bit about how you wound up in research.


At least from all the people I’ve ever spoken to, it’s pretty common to say it’s not something you set out to do from the get-go.  I mean how many people have said “Yes” that you might have asked this question to in the past? 


One.  So, I’ve done over 140 interviews, and I’ve had, I believe, one.  I might be mistaken, but I really think it’s one person that said intentionally they set out in college to be in market research or consumer insights.  


Yeah, I feel like that it’s more of a recent phenomenon.  I mean, growing up, my career aspirations went from wanting to be a marine biologist at Sea World and all those things that come with that and all the way to wanting to go into finance and then eventually discovering sociology in school, which kind of led me down this path.  I guess that’s a normal discipline that might lead people down this pathway. But, to me, ultimately, in the end, I think people are really drawn to what they’re passionate about because of something they’ve gone through or something they’ve experienced or even where they come from.  And I think that where-you-come-from piece was really strong from me. I grew up outside of Youngstown, Ohio, if you might know where that’s at. It’s a pretty blue-collar part of the country where people… I guess the best way to describe it is that people really have been left behind economically there for quite a number of years.  And so, really what was important was family and community and even your neighborhood because that’s where your support and your encouragement and everything came from. And so, because of that, you really took on a type of responsibility even as a kid to look out for everybody. And so, I think, thinking about this question and thinking through this question a little bit more, that to me, at least, on a deeper level I think led me towards this career pathway to be more inclined to think about other people’s points of views or needs or, you know, what’s really motivating them or what’s going to help make their lives better.     


Yeah, that’s interesting.  You have the majority of the population in the U.S. that lives on the coasts…  And it’s interesting I come from Fresno or central California, which is a similar demographic profile. Especially in context of being in California, you wouldn’t think of Fresno necessarily being some of the poorest… one of the poorest zip codes in America.  But it definitely creates a level of empathy that, if harnessed correctly, can help you want to understand consumers and just people in general, maybe even beyond just a consumption pattern and help identify where you can add value in a true way to that to people’s lives.      


Mm-hmm, exactly.


That other thing that’s interesting is this intellectual curiosity, I would say, is probably a theme I’ve seen among people that have entered into this space as it relates with human behavior.  I think, if you look now, you’ve got University of Massachusetts, they have a Master’s program focused on market research; Georgia does as well. Both of those colleges, incidentally, have a 100% job placement rate prior to graduation, which is unbelievable.  So, just goes to show you that while the C-level or the executive level inside of the insights space now… while marketing research and UX, they didn’t really have… That wasn’t a known career path 15, even 10 years ago, whereas now it seems like it’s becoming, it’s scaling up and becoming a much bigger part of the corporate ecosystem.  So, people are being a little bit more intentional as it relates with their area of focus and desire in a career.      


At least from my perspective…  My team is called customer strategy; we’re not market research.  And to me, that really represents the evolution of the traditional market research function.  It is the next step. And, when you think about it that way, you take a different perspective, right?  You’re touching many functions like you would in research, but you’re not only doing and executing research:  You have Big Data involved, analytics, some machine learning, even design research techniques. But it goes beyond just the insights, just beyond that piece of the execution to really try to drive customer centricity into the heart and soul of the business, all the way from the business activities to, I would say, the culture, the ethos that people have that work there, right?  And that’s a big, big pivot.      


A huge pivot, it’s a huge pivot.  At a corporate level… So, there are two things that are interesting for me on this front.  One is you’re talking about a shift in corporate behavior. This week I dropped the episode with Estrella Lopez-Brea of a cereal partnership between Nestlé and General Mills.  In that, she actually said this is the most exciting time to be in an insights function because for the first time, we’re getting the red carpet rolled out to us from the boardroom.  She also referenced this… I think I can share… Well, anyway I might be able to share a slide with you of it. The Watermark Report, it’s a longitudinal study on the Fortune 500, and it identifies changes in the laggards and the leaders inside of that ecosystem.  Unambiguously, the communality across the companies that are successful are customer-centric, whereas the companies that are not are the laggards, the underperformers, the anchors on the S&P. It’s just so factually based as to, if you don’t have the customer in the center of your decisions, then you are going to not succeed.  But then the other side of your point, which I think is really interesting, is this evolution of market research into strategy. I’ve never heard in these episodes so far somebody articulate it exactly like that, but I think it’s an important point because (and I have been talking a lot about this point) that it is about 5 to 1 in market researchers to UX researchers or professionals; user experience is what I mean by that.  So in the corporate ecosystem, you’re seeing a lot of focus centered around… and there’s a difference in the type of work that they do. Basically, market researchers are more broadly capable – I’d put it like that – whereas the UX seems to be very centric to product and so they go much deeper and then they also go up and down the value chain farther with respect to the insights and the decisions that are made. But, your point about this strategy is, I think, really on point, which is to say it is the evolution or the next phase for where research is moving inside of the decision tree.        


Mm-hmm, it’s become less functional.  At least, that’s my opinion on it, my perspective.


That’s interesting.  All right, well, so tell me a little bit about Cruise if you don’t mind.  You guys are a startup. I’m sure everything is confidential, and that’s totally fine.  I know you’re headquartered in San Francisco. Of course, I reviewed the website. What drew you to this particular startup?


Well, it’s extremely exciting.  A lot of my background was in automotive, and so, I was pretty familiar with the space.  When I was at Cadillac, we had super-cruise technology there, which is semi-autonomous, hands-free driving, that the team I was part of did some work around after the vehicle was launched to understand how people were using it and their level of satisfaction and the like to help improve the feature for the car itself.  But, to me, Cruise really represents a little bit of what we were talking about in the beginning of podcast about, you know, why did I get into research? Why did I get into this pathway to begin with? Because, as I mentioned, it was just a general point of view to better people and better people’s lives and understand their perspective…  And so, there’s that curiosity element, as you said, the research component, searching for the answer or the insight, right? But then there is also what I like to call the softer component, which is really that the brand and the company really has people at the center of it, and everything that we’re doing, even as you read in the introduction, is around making people’s lives better.  And it’s a huge challenge, and it’s a huge opportunity as well. It’s something that will completely at scale or maybe even not at scale change how we live, the nature of how we live. Deaths could be completely eliminated, right, as for example. I see it as both a win-win and both sides of the coin for me as to why I joined it. Also, because I really wanted to take on another opportunity to build a team.  This is the second time I’ve gone about doing it. The first time at Cadillac was just with a smaller insights group within a larger, much larger, organization. This time around it’s just completely from the ground up in every way possible, I mean, every way possible.       


How exciting.  That’s a perfect place to be able to sit.  I mean you’re solving… As a life-long commuter, I’m in the Bay Area or L.A. weekly.  Actually, after this recording, I’m jumping into the car and going to San Francisco, ironically.  But we’re always in the state of spending, it feels like, spending time traveling. Man, if that problem can get solved that would be…  Talk about an improvement to overall life! And then the other part, Gosh, being able to build something from the ground up in context of a team and a product, for that matter, that’s an exciting opportunity.  How do you go about uh…? I know there’s a war on talent. I think that’s how people are casting it now in the Bay Area. How do you go about attracting people?


Well, that’s actually a really good question.  Well, right now we have to hire a lot of people.  So I believe by the end of the year we’re going to be doubling our organization, going from, I think, around 1,400 right now.  (We were 1,200 when I joined in January.) So it’s going to be over, maybe over 2,000. The vast majority of the people will be in engineering and data science ‘cause that’s the bulk of the work.  But I can say we do have one assistant manager position open on my team. I’ll reach out there. If anybody listening is interested, they definitely can reach out to me.    


Yeah, for sure, totally.  And if you shoot me the job description, I’ll post it on LinkedIn.  


Yeah, definitely growing tremendously.  Word of mouth is big. In the Bay Area, it is a war for talent, especially on the engineering side.  But, to me, I’ve hired two people on my team recently; we’ve been together for about three months now – the three of us.  I think it really comes down to the challenge that’s presented and the opportunity to be building something that’s this big from the ground up.  Working at Cruise and in this space is, basically, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity because not many people get to literally lay, at least even from a customer strategy or research perspective…  Not many people get to say that they were at the birth of something and built the foundational knowledge before there was anything that could be built. And what I mean by that is not that research hasn’t been conducted in the self-driving space at all.  Of course, there’s been research there. But there’s a lot of kind of first-evers that we’re doing here, right, because the level of specificity and the commercial intent and drive behind everything we’re doing as a team is much more intense because it’s actually a business, right?  It’s not necessarily just exploration or learning or extremely broad-based in its applications. So I think that that adds a new level to everything.        


So, I got a…  When Tesla released the Model 3, the low priced one, I went ahead and traded in my gas- or diesel-guzzling truck and then purchased one.  And it has completely changed my… And it’s not like fully autonomous, right, but it has completely changed my life with respect to how the cruise control operates.  It took me, I want to say, the better part of almost two months just to get acclimated to… It’s almost like a trust factor is how I put it, like a dating relationship in a lot of ways with the technology.  I mean that in all sincerity. It was a completely different. Like, “I don’t trust you, Tesla.” Yeah, right. So, anyway.          


I mean that right there is one of the biggest challenges and even things that I’m really intent on understanding overall.  Trust is one way of thinking about it, but understanding what will drive adoption for Cruise or even for the technology without it becoming something of a long-term novelty to people, right?  That’s a very, very essential question right now. And so, for context, right, for context purposes for this, today people are mostly exposed to the idea of self-driving technology from kind of sensationalized media, right:  so, crashes of Teslas and crashes of their cars. So there’s some awareness out there about mobility. But there’s not really common understanding; there’s definitely some skepticism. And even the ways that benefits of the technology or what a service like Cruise would provide or even the forms that the technology could take haven’t really been made tangible, I think, for people to understand or even relate to.  As I’ve kind of put it before some other colleagues, it’s like we’re not only building a brand here, we’re also at the forefront of building an entirely new category that just doesn’t exist, right? And it takes a lot of work to do that.        


I actually think it’s a lot like the horse and buggy versus the original automobile.  When I say it’s disruptive from a driving perspective, it’s that different. It’s like a different sort of a thing.   


Mm-hmm.  Yeah, that’s exactly it.  So what I’m thinking about on a deeper consumer level is how can we unlock what we call tensions, right?  That example that you gave is kind of a tension in transportation: a tension between something that’s familiar like riding in a car or even on a horse or whatever and the technology or solution that comes along that disrupts it and makes you have to give up part of what makes that experience familiar to you in the first place, right?   




That right there is sort of the challenge, and what we’re trying to do is really hone in on it and identify and begin working like today on how we can even think about accelerating adoption when the cars are on the road…  I mean the cars are on the road in San Francisco but when people, consumers, are in the cars ‘cause marketing, pricing, product experience – all that stuff – is going to have an impact. But I feel like, as you’re pointing out, with a change that’s of this magnitude overall, it still begs the question of, “Is there something else going on?”  “Is there something that we’re not taking into consideration?” because the horse to automobile… That’s a good example of a similar thing happening, but that was so long ago, right? There’s not much data on that. We can’t really go look back and come up with a KPI, you know.     


That’s true.  It would be funny to do that though, I think.  Anyway, yeah. So, you’re building a team. How do you go about finding new vendors and research partners?


So, honestly, I’ve traditionally relied on word of mouth.  That’s been my biggest go-to for the most part or if something piques my interest.  It’s really the combination of those two. It’s like marketing: it’s like right time, right place, right person.  It’s all those things. But, most the time, I’ve been thinking about this a lot quite recently because I’m really focused on building the team’s capabilities out.  So, right now, tools, solutions, anything that goes beyond survey platforms ‘because we do have a survey platform. We have two now that we can leverage in-house because agility is key for us…are really the things I’m most interested in.  Anything that adds the value and can still push the envelope is also of interest too. But then, as I mentioned, customer strategy (It’s just not research)… We’re also leveraging analytics and doing a lot with third-party data. Something that I’ve been looking for a lot has been behavioral data related to how people just move about cities, San Francisco, all cities, major cities.  So, it’s modes of transportation. Who are the people themselves who do this? You name it ‘cause there’s so much of wealth of data out there to be tapped into and it’s an area that the opportunity that’s unlocked by the technology is so great that you do have to cast the net broad as well. So trying to get at that behavioral piece, I think, is really, really essential. And that’s, again, something that we would look at for a partner to help provide.              


OK, that’s actually a bunch of gold right there for our listeners.  I’d imagine that LinkedIn is a pretty good way for people to be able to contact you if they feel they have some value they could add?  


Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely fine.  Again, we’re really taking on a big challenge with a lot of unknowns.  The research is “in concept” because no consumer is experiencing the technology right now.  So, capabilities and solutions that we can leverage quickly as a team are…that would help speak to these challenges would be of very high interest to me.   


So, in context of all the unknowns, what sort of tips, tricks, or methodologies, techniques, whatever are you leveraging to understand the heart of the consumer?   


So, I’ll back it up a bit.  My team only has been together for about three months now.  I’m just giving you the context. But we’re small, but we’re mighty.  So, we’ve actually conducted about six projects.  




Yeah, so, it’s quite a bit.  We’re averaging about two a month, which is actually, I think, pretty impressive.  So, most of the work has been really focused around unpacking what drives the decisions people are making as it relates to ordering a ride, the space we’re going to go into and offer service to customers; and also unpacking benefits and barriers as it relates to building our brand and understanding how people think about the technology overall.  On the research front, I guess there’s a lot of opportunities as you can imagine, but there aren’t really, I’d say, tips or tricks around technique and method. I think anything we can do to get people as close as we can to the experience in what we’re developing, it’s really going to help us. And that’s something that we’re working on and trying to do ‘cause it’s a lot of confidentiality involved, but we definitely want to do that.  But I’d say just being only here for a few months and less than a year now, I’m just building up the capabilities in the team quickly. I probably could say that there’s a couple of tips or perspectives that have kind of emerged for me or kind of come up for me ‘cause, again, this is my first foray into tech. And it’s not just traditional tech; it’s super-emerging tech.   




It’s forefront, leading edge.  So, I think for anyone who’s going into this space or applying for the job to join the team, a couple things have stood out for me.  One was I’ve learned that when you go into a new category, you have to really be humble about what you do because you’re just not going to know the answer or be able to find the data or you’re going to fail quite frankly because it’s unknown territory.  And you have to be open and willing to doing that and so I think it takes a level of humility, especially as a researcher. A lot of people really want to, “Can I get the right answer?” “Can I really deliver the insight?” “Can I get there to really help move the needle?”  And, in this space, you want to be prepared to not know. And sometimes you want to be prepared to go beyond the data because you won’t be able to find the exact data that you need. It’s not just the insight but also the inference; it’s that extra piece; it’s the consultative moment. I think focus is important, so being focused especially when you have to execute.  And what I mean by that is really like I think what’s successful for people in this space is that you have to be really purposeful on how you spend your time and your resources. The way that I’ve described it to people is you have to Marie Kondo everything and anything when possible because you can’t take on every request there is. And I think this is a common thing for people in research and insights.  You can’t necessarily take on every request. You have to know when not to because taking on everything that’s coming from everywhere will get you absolutely nowhere.  




And the environment is extremely fast paced.  So, you have to Marie Kondo: You have to remove the things or be willing to remove the things that are not going to help get you to the goal.


Yeah, and that’s part of one of the biggest impediments that I’ve seen over the last 20 years, is we continue to see what I call research bloat because all these disparate stakeholders continue to weigh in and research just tries to accommodate these disparate objectives and then, ultimately, you wind up watering down the research to the point where it’s really not particularly useful, at least in the specificity of the original reason it was spawned.  I think that’s a really important point of exercising the discipline around the research that it maintains the focus and so that you’re able to (one) get it to field quick and get the answer quick and then iterate it as you need to.  


Mm-hmm.  We’ve been very rigorous on my team with this in that we line-by-line align company objective, departmental objective, research objective, only one line.  It’s all got to be seamless all the way through before it gets greenlighted because it’s pretty much a race to the market. It’s a big technology, and a lot of people are racing to get there.  And you have to be focused with it; you have to be focused. I think being open is important and that goes with this. And what I mean by being open is don’t get wedded to a project; don’t fall in love with the research.  And you definitely have to have the capability to either execute it quickly or change things on the fly. And, if either one cannot be done, you just have to be open; you have to be ready for things to change on a dime ‘cause it’s just part of the nature of the pace and of the development of the technology and the work that we’re doing.  

And then the other thing that I think is important and this to me kind of comes from, I think it kind of comes from experience of being in this territory and in tech and in San Francisco is that I encourage my team to also be hungry, so always be thinking ahead to help move everybody you work with forward.  And so, what I mean by that is (and this is sort of part of the customer strategy piece that we were talking about earlier) is how do YOU help maintain the momentum; how do YOU think ahead and anticipate what the team might need. So it’s like anything you can do as a researcher that you can ensure that the customer’s voice is brought into the decision-making process sooner than people ever would have expected it to be, I think, is just a surprise and a delight across the board and everybody benefits from it.  And that’s not just planning a calendar, but I think it comes from this idea of having the passion and being hungry in what you want to do and what you want to achieve.    


Totally.  So, with respect to you sitting on the bleeding edge of innovation, what’s your perspective over the next two to three years on AR, VR, voice, etc.?  How’s that going to be mixed into the insights function?


Oh, there’s probably a ton of ways.  I mean like if it lives up to the promise with the speed and the bandwidth, it could be completely game-changing for everything that’s done on an executional level.  You know the accuracy of the data, the volume of data you could collect is much, much more. There could be totally new solutions out there, I think. And even from the perspective of this is there’s also tighter integration with the experience the customer actually has.  And that’s where this gets very exciting for people who are or brands that are actually going to leverage AR, VR, voice, and anything that’s enabled through their technology or their offering with 5G because you’ll have much more of a seamless connection to the customer and you can create a new value proposition with them that will help you improve their lives and improve their experience while also providing you with the information and the insight that you need.  So, I think that’s one area as well: that’s there’s going to be that tighter integration, something like I don’t think we’ve seen yet. We’re getting there, but we haven’t seen it. I feel like it’s much been more like a technology as a tool applied versus more of a seamless integration between the technology and the experience and the data and the insights portion as well. Some other areas: I think we’re going to get next generation creative and concept testing.  If you think we’re going to be able to interact with questions, place people in situations… Even right now you put people with a big headset on and all of that, I think there’s just going to be much more capability as a result of the technology, especially when you’re trying to understand or simulate different messages or different interfaces or things that you want to provide during an in-car experience or even like testing in CPG space like shelf testing, package testing.  Right now, it’s all just straight choice tasks or interviewing people. That’s kind of what we’re doing. We haven’t really found (at least, I haven’t seen it) a very optimal kind of AR, VR experience that has been created.   

I’d say another spot was…  I think qualitative’s going to be…  Qualitative research just keeps getting better and better or at least they’ve done it through technology, keeps landing on that side in terms of how I see things.  Live streaming: you’ll have the bandwidth; you’ll have the capability to do that. Interview people at tasks. And I think even the AI and the machine learning aspect’s going to be even more exciting because right now we have chat bots but they’re pretty…  I think they’re going to be basic compared to what we’re going to see and even voice and leveraging the data that’s collected qualitatively through voice, even conversations, will be much more insightful so that kind of lends and blends the idea of qualitative being part of the Big Data solution as well.    


That’s really interesting.  Sorry, really quick, but you’re piggybacking on a theme that I’ve been seeing, which is technology (AI, etc.) NLP, facial recognition is making qualitative accessible and now being able to do it at scale.  Because before the analytics, the data collection was tough but the analytics was impossible once you got past 10 or 20 people. And now, all of a sudden, you can actually have the tools by which you can analyze and get to what all this disparate data actually is trying to bubble up as truth.  Yeah, it’s an interesting time for qualitative; I’m very bullish on it and its market share over the next 5 to 10 years.     


Yeah, and I think even imagery is a space that’s interesting, you know, not just the voice.  But you can think of it derived what people put out on social. How do we think about that more and the opportunity that’s provided just through maybe more derived forms of insights versus researched forms?  Also, I think that our understanding of the customer journey’s also going to get a real boost from this technology. So, there should be much more of a wealth of location-based data. Behavioral data, in particular, I think is the most exciting.  I feel like every time we talk about the customer journey, it’s changing or it’s being reframed or sometimes even overly complex or overwhelming sometimes. And I think the promise of the technology will help us be able to parse out, simplify, and derive new meaning and insight from it and from what’s actually going on.  I think that that’s another piece that can really be unlocked.    


So, when you kind of pull back and look over your career across automotive and innovation, what is the project that you’re the most proud of?


Yeah, that’s a good question.  I’d have to say it’s actually quite recent.  I finished it up before I left Cadillac several months ago to join Cruise.  So, during my time there, I led a pretty long project where we dove into the current state of loyalty for the brand and even built a pretty robust model of loyalty drivers in the luxury automotive space, just trying to identify what specific levers from a product perspective, a communication perspective, an incentive perspective – all these different levers we could rely on to move the needle for us, right?  And what made the project so rewarding for me was (of course, that piece of it was very rewarding) was that I had the opportunity in my role there because I wasn’t just a senior manager of insights but also led strategic initiatives. And so, within that project itself, I was able to spearhead the development, execution of an all new marketing program basically to drive loyalty. And so, the result of the program actually led to incremental sales of the brand and generated some pretty good profit for the company overall.  And so, I think that to me was that tangible result and being part of it is not the norm for everybody who’s in research or customer-strategy-related field at all. You don’t often get to travel the whole pathway. And I tend to think we, as professionals, usually led through influence and not execution, for the most part. So, that I think was a point of pride because it was all the way from insights generation and understanding and learning and working throughout the organization with various partners to actually get something that really struck a chord with consumers so much and really helped the bottom line of the company overall.              


Yeah, that’s funny in that the biggest complaint that I hear among researchers is they feel a little bit coggish relative to the product life cycle as opposed to conception all the way through to execution into the marketplace.  A lot of times you don’t have the satisfaction – the success or failure – of the assertions that you made in the research phases. In some ways, you feel like an outsider relative to the larger engine that’s driving the business forward.  That’s probably a little bit biased towards the agency side in our world as opposed to the internal researchers, but I still hear that from the internal researchers as well. It’s not surprising to me that would be the satisfaction that we’d get, you’d get specifically, would be connected to a project that had that sort of full market implication and execution point of view.    


Yeah, exactly.  But also, I think that’s where…  I’m going back to like the question is “What is customer strategy?”  I think that’s where the promise of the idea of customer strategy is the evolution of market research.  Within organizations, it’s kind of key. It’s about you going beyond; it’s alleviating or even going beyond the idea of plugging into a type of process and being actually integrated and having the seat at the table in that partnership way.  It should not be standardized to really be there.  


So, the not be standardized, you mean by that like cookie-cutter? 


I think, well, it’s different for every category; it’s different for every vertical.  But to not have that feeling: as professionals you don’t ever want to feel like you’re expendable or replaceable or anybody can come in and just be the cog that helps turn.  You don’t want that; you want that value. And so, even thinking about a functionality, the dangers of AI and machine learning and data processing is that you could see a future where some of the things that we do today are completely replaced.  And so, what is the value-add? Well, that strategic portion of it, that integration into everything that shapes completely with the organization is around the customer. You’re dressing the organization as such I think plays into that.  


OK, cool.  I like that a lot.  Do you have a personal motto?


Actually, it was given to me by my partner:  going places. I don’t know why he gave me that.


I think I know.  


It sounds like…  Actually, it sounds like…  I have to look it up. Is it Toyota?  It’s not Toyota’s, Toyota’s motto.  


I don’t know.  I’ve heard it.


Oh, “Let’s go places”.  That’s Toyota. I had to look that up there for a second.  It’s kind of funny and ironic, right, being in automotive transportation.


Automotive. Yeah, for sure, I like that a lot.  That’s actually really good. That is very much a nice life motto, and it seems fitting for you.  My guest today has been Michael Yaksich, Director of Consumer Strategy at Cruise. Thank you, Michael, for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thanks so much.  Take care.


Everyone else, if you would please take the time to “Like” this show, share it with friends, colleagues, family members.  As always, my mom’s really proud when you leave a 5-star review; so, if you’d take time to do that, it’d make my Christmas time a little better too.  Thanks so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.


This episode is brought to you by Clearworks.  They are an insights, innovation and customer experience company.  They help their clients understand their customers better, identify opportunities for innovation, and create products, services, and experience that actually matter.  Their clients are diverse, both in size and industry. They do share one important thing, which is a passion to drive more business by driving more meaningful human connections.  You can find them online at www.clearworks.net.  Again, it’s www.clearworks.net.  And again, thank you so much for your time.     

PAW 2019 Conference Series – Tony Ayaz – Gemini Data Inc.

Welcome to the 2019 Predictive Analytics World (PAW) Conference Series. Recorded live in Las Vegas, this series is bringing interviews straight to you from exhibitors and speakers at this year’s event. In this interview, host Jamin Brazil interviews Tony Ayaz, CEO and Co-founder of Gemini Data Inc.

Find Tony Online:

Email: tony.ayaz@geminidata.com


Gemini Data Inc.


Tony, when did you start Gemini?


We started the company in 2015.


2015.  We’re in the Happy Market Research Podcast right now.  We’re at Predictive Analytics World and Marketing Analytics World and there’s lots of worlds in this particular conference. I think there’s like twelve.  Have you guys been to this conference before? 


This is actually our first time at this conference.  And for us, I think it’s a win because what we’re looking for is real users with real pain a little bit beyond the typical IT folks that we’re looking for.


Got it.  So, you’re based out of San Francisco.  You started the business in 2015; so, you’ve had some success obviously.  Tell me a little bit about what you guys do.


Sure.  At Gemini Data, we help our customers with digital transformation initiatives.  What I mean by that is we help customers achieve data availability. And data availability is a necessary requirement today if you’re really looking to do something significant or on digital transformation, AI, or ML initiatives.  And what we mean by that is that you have to access to data and you have to make that data available. And there’s a lot of talk about out-of-the-box machine learning solutions and things that are out there in the market. But the reality is that if you’re doing complex things and trying to run your business, you need data diversity, and you only get that through data availability.  And so, what we do is we leverage the customer’s existing investments in various, different data platforms: it could be in a CSV; it could be in a data lake. It doesn’t really matter to us. We have a method that we apply called Zero Copy Data Virtualization that actually takes your data that’s sourced without you to move or copy that data or do the complex ETL processes that we’ve all been used to for the past two to three decades, which just simply doesn’t scale with AI.    


Data diversity is a term I’ve never heard before, but it is my favorite one in this conference.  Diversity is something that we’ve… we’re becoming more and more aware, especially in the Bay Area, like Silicon Valley…  I’d say globally you’re seeing… The math is that if you have more diversity in your senior leadership team, then you have a better world view, which gives you an improved advantage in the marketplace, right?       




And what’s interesting is how you’re connecting that in with data.  It isn’t about a single… right? It’s about different types of data.  You mentioned CSV versus data lake, which are vastly different, like profoundly different.  Your system is able to ingest both of those? 


I wouldn’t say ingest, access those systems.


Got it


We don’t want you to move or copy the data, but we allow you to access it in a unified way.


OK, cool.  So that bypasses some PIII?


Yes, it bypasses it in the sense that you’re giving access to people that should have access to it.  So we follow the same protocols of data access they have as their role or authority would provide them.  But we take it a step further of looking into five years from now, Zero Trust Networks are going to be deployed, which is a new, let’s call it, security protocol or methodology, which basically changes things versus where we’re at today:  It’s the perimeter of defense, which I’m going to put firewalls around things; I’m going to give you access to things you should have; and then when you’re not an employee, for example, I take you off. Think of this as more of a real-time basis of how you should have access, when you should have access, right by you as a user using the system.  Nobody has to manually set things up for you. The machine kind of knows what you should have access to, what you shouldn’t. It protects you. And this is something that’s far more deeper and can evolve, but you can only do that by applying modern architectures that have been around less than five years, I would say, to go to this next level for security.      


That’s really interesting.  You’ve been in the industry a long time.  What do you see as some big trends both from things that have evolved relatively recently in the last two to three years and then where we’re going in the next two to three years?


If I may go even a little past two to three years…  So, in 2005 is where I like to start is when the evolution of Big Data started, right?  It was the dotcom crash, but then things were coming up. Big Data, grab all the data that’s going to solve world hunger.  It’s going be awesome.


I actually think I saw that tweet.


Yeah, probably.  Right. At the time, there was nothing wrong with that.  That’s what you had to do. There’s a whole bunch of data coming in.  Nobody knew how to collect it. So the idea was centralize all this data.  Just grab it. And then there was a lot of successful companies that came through. which one of I had the pleasure of being at.  It was called Splunk in the early days. We grabbed the data, brought it in, and centralized it, made it easy for people. Well, that was 2005, and at the same time, data lakes came out and the whole Dupe and Open Source.  Fast forward to 2013 or into current time, you’re dealing with data chaos. And what’s happening is now that everybody has actually collected everything you could imagine. I call it a messy filing cabinet. Imagine if you went to your filing cabinet and didn’t have proper files and you just shoved papers in there, every time you need to go look through the papers, you have to sift through one by one.  Now, think about the petabytes of data that’s out there.      




That strategy does not work.  If you’re just collecting it, you’re making it very had to access.  And so where we’re going tomorrow, meaning the industry, from an AI perspective is back to that point about AI needs data diversity, right?  You need to make sure that you’re looking at all different data. So, if somebody tells you to move your data somewhere else and port it here or put it in the cloud, they’re doing a dissatisfaction because we’re playing the same game again.  You’re moving that data again, waiting to get access to it, and what I think customers would need today, and if they’re thinking about AI, is I’ve made my investments but I need to make it easier to access. And the way we access that is we make it easy for you to apply standard [unclear] that’s been around for three decades, and you can use it across all these complex systems and bring the data together.  Whether it’s CSV, whether it’s in a database or a data lake, it doesn’t really matter; we’re giving a uniform way to access it.     


And then, it’s accessed and then is there also display and interact with on the other side of it?  


Absolutely.  So, we have our interface that you can look at the data; we integrate it with a graph database:  much like you can use LinkedIn to see your first- or second-degree contacts. Image if you could do that with your data.  So we bring the data together; we allow you to see the relationships, which that by itself provides a significant value to customers because 51% of data scientists dilemma is getting access to the right data set to apply machine learning.  And, if you’re an analytics person, you’re relying on IT way too much to get that access. So we provide that as an option. We have other analytics capabilities on top of that. But the other thing that we do that’s interesting is, if you’ve invested in a Tableau or a Looker or a Business Intelligence of your choice, we don’t want to disrupt the business user.  So, they want data diversity. So we actually can send that data into their BI tool of choice as well. 


So you’re really fitting like an API basically or this middle ware (I don’t know what the right framework is), but that allows a Rosetta Stone of sorts, right, where it’s able to then interpret that messy data structured and then…   


Yeah, think of it as a…  If you want to classify data management and data integration technologies that have been around for two, three decades, we’re now at a point that they’re trying to apply that towards AI, which basically means there’s a lot of consulting and ETL and time and preparation and people needed to do that.  With the amount of data that is being spit out and what you need to do with AI, that doesn’t scale. So, we’re bringing a modern approach from a cloud prospective how you can access data to source, not move it, and accelerate the analytics process. 


Oh, that’s huge, that’s huge.  That speed-to-insight is what’s king right now.  


Exactly.  And to your question about the industry, there’s been recent acquisitions with Tableau and everything that’s happened.  In our opinion, that’s kind of validated the need for the market. Now look, if I’m Sales Force and I have the large, diverse data sets and I need to integrate them together and bring Tableau together into that, that’s a fantastic purchase.  But what if you’re not ready to make that migration to the cloud? What if your data is on premise? What if you don’t want to move it around? And customers need to leverage those systems and bring that power to them. But, in reality, what also people have to think about is how am I going to make it easier for my business users, who are not technical, to get access to that data.  And that’s why we really rely on sequel or we make it a graph-interaction with the data so everybody can understand it. We all know the challenges of hiring technical talent.     


War on talent for like the last three years and getting bloodier.  It’s just mind-blowing what’s happening right now on that front.  




So, who’s your ideal customer?


Starting from the top, I would probably say a Chief Data Officer or anybody in that function or reporting within that group.  Below that, I would say Head of Analytics or business intelligence leaders. And then I would say a layer below that, it would be data engineers that are sometimes tasked with getting this and we can provide tremendous automation for those folks as well.


Got it.  Favorite customer story?


Favorite customer story I would say is in the health care industry.  I’m not at liberty to mention the customer but… 


We never are if it’s pharma or health care.  It’s always top secret.  


It’s a health care but the best quotes I heard from the Chief Technology Officer was that “Hey, you guys bring the best of both worlds to me.”  He goes, “I have my data governance people here that are always telling me how to protect the data and make sure that we don’t violate any compliance issues or things like that.  Then I have my Chief Research side that’s always looking at cutting-edge, innovative things. And they’re supposed to look at AI how to improve things. And you guys are bringing the best of both worlds.”  And what he meant by that was we’re moving in those data-sharing economy that let’s say you’re a researcher for cancer and you have a cure for some ailment of cancer; and I’m a numbers-cruncher, but I have all this data based on medical device data that when we applied this medication to that we could solve that problem; and a third party may be a health care provider trying to see how many patients are accessing that or could improve the lives of people or reduce insurance rates or whatever may be.  This is all stored in different areas. If we could actually share our data in the context that we had together, those are tremendous things that we can solve together. And that’s why I really like the health care side where we’re giving them access to so many different data sources that can have profound effects on the better good and health and other beings’ aspects of life that we can hopefully provide for our customers.      


That is super powerful.  I love that story. That just crystallizes the importance of the work that you guys are doing.  


Exactly.  Thank you.


If someone wants to get in contact with you or Gemini data, how would they do that?


You go to our website standardofgeminidata.com or contact geminidata.com.  I’m always accessible, so Tony@geminidata.com.  Yeah, it’s very easy to talk to us.


Yeah, perfect.  Tony, thanks so much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you for having us.


Everybody else that’s listening to this show, please take the time to screenshot it.  This is my – sorry to the other guests – favorite episode so far. The data-sharing part I thought was really interesting that Tony brought up.  The data-sharing economy: that is such a powerful framework for us to start understanding how we’re going to make better decisions as we incorporate more data diversity in those.  So definitely take the time, screenshot this. Hope you tag us on Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever your social media platform of choice is. Thanks so much for all the support. Have a great rest of your day.