Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

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

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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.


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