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Research: Humanising Data

9 min read.

Naomi Staff, Managing Director

by Naomi Staff, Managing Director

Core Research

Every day, we are surrounded by bytes and streams of data. Bar charts display growth and decline, trend lines indicate problems or opportunities and pie charts tell us the story of market share. Researchers talk about the percentage of a specific ‘cohort’ or the ‘high- indexing demographic group,’ which tends to dehumanise consumers. Are we forgetting that consumers are people?

We know we should prioritise emotional advertising due to its impact on long-term profitability, but too much research continues to be conducted and presented in a purely rational or logical way. Why does so much research ignore the emotion in the room?

In Rory Sutherland’s 2019 book, Alchemy, the ad man makes the case for a more lateral approach, suggesting that ‘alongside the inarguably valuable products of science and logic, there are also hundreds of seemingly irrational solutions to human problems just waiting to be discovered.’1 Marketers tend to over-rely on cold hard data points; they don’t pay enough attention to the emotions, the unsaid, the sentiment and the magical discovery of research.

We believe that there are three areas of research where human emotion and the potential for new discovery should never be ignored:



The first is the process of gathering evidence to better understand a problem or scope out an opportunity. Many research briefs focus on validating an assumption that already exists. While this is understandable, it can often lead to research that is loaded with subjective biases and may well miss potential opportunities. We all suffer from biases, giving our attention to what we already accept or understand, and this can be the enemy of discovery. Practitioners who bring a curious mind to the data collection stage of the research can uncover interesting nuances and nuggets.

There are various qualitative research methods to provide a deeper understanding of people and their emotions. For example, asking participants to record a personal video diary in addition to an in- depth interview, or facilitating workshops where the participants engage with problem solving rather than participate in a standard focus group. Any opportunity to encourage humans to respond emotionally will be more powerful than analysing a data point based on an assumed logical action.

Within these moments, it is possible to realise the nuances of a topic, facilitate conversations about sensitive topics and see the emotion in a person’s eyes.

We cannot ignore the human in the data.



The second area of research where it is crucial to understand the role of emotion is during analysis and interpretation. Too often, research is presented in percentages and figures, and there is seldom a context or a narrative to the numbers. It is important to fix a wider lens on the analysis to understand the broader context of why the numbers go up, down or remain flat.

Often, human emotions are a key factor in explaining the results of research analysis.

For example, asking people about their propensity to purchase in 2019 was very different to asking someone four years earlier. While the economy had improved, the wider societal conversations in 2019 were very different to those of 2015. In June 2015, the same-sex marriage referendum was the most important national conversation, and it boosted confidence in the summer months.2 Four years later, uncertainty over Brexit caused over two-thirds of people to believe the economy would suffer,3 and consumer sentiment fell to a 56-month low.4

An example of when emotions can overrule numbers is when we analyse health behaviours. Our work in this area often produces numbers that show people’s good intentions for a healthy lifestyle, but there are barriers to people achieving their health and fitness goals.

These barriers are rarely discovered by looking at the numbers. Only by engaging directly with people will we understand the emotional drivers of poor health behaviour, such as fear, loneliness or stress. We must take a broad approach to our analysis and consider the wider context of culture and the impact it can have on how people feel.



Finally, research results must leave a positive impression with stakeholders. A report should have the key data, charts and findings, but a conventional PowerPoint file can also kill all inspiration and potential for business impact.

Presenting results that will lead to action is the key to unlocking growth potential. Research must empower better decisions, excite creative responses or allow decision makers to think more deeply and empathise with customers or users.

Maximising these insights from your market research investment is important to your business success. An insight or recommendation is useless until it is actioned.

Sharing findings as a story ensures that they travel beyond the research and insights team and are leveraged by every part of the organisation, from product development to finance. It is important to identify the key messages and consider how you should communicate them to your audience in a creative way.

The first opportunity is often simple – translate the executive summary into messages with emotion. Using emotive verbs such as ‘customers feel,’ phrases such as ‘people worry about’ or ‘this group is hopeful of’ conveys how people are emotional, and not always rational decision makers.

This approach to language encourages the reader to experience the emotional sentiment and not just read the research results. This may seem obvious, but its significance is often overlooked.

The second is the format you use to present your findings. Challenging the normal linear and flat PowerPoint presentation is key. Video allows people to see the body language and emotional gestures expressed by research participants. A more involved debrief technique is a roleplay workshop, where a stakeholder (e.g. the brand manager) takes on the role of a customer and engages in dialogue with other company stakeholders. This allows for a more empathetic understanding of customer needs.

Researching people is a privilege and should inspire and excite when something new is discovered. Focusing purely on numbers can lose the power of emotion. We must keep our focus on the distinction between data that highlights a customer behaviour and the emotions that often underly their motivation.



1. Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, Rory Sutherland, 2019
2. Core Research Cultural Index, 2015-2019
3. Core Research Brexit Barometer, November 2019
4. Consumer Sentiment Index, KBC, ESRI, 2015 & 2019
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