On Research Theatre

A council shares their plans to build a new block of flats in an estate.

They ask the residents what they think.

The residents say, "we don't want a new block of flats, we want safe bike storage and a better tended open space."

The council reply, "thanks for your feedback, we're going to go ahead and build that new block we talked about."


This happens all the frickin' time.

Now, I want to set aside any considerations of NIMBYism and talk about the issue here: research theatre.

You know you're supposed to be consultative.

It looks good to stakeholders when you've "done the research".

But … sometimes you don't actually want to know anything that undermines The Plan.

Companies these days have to tell a nice story of being customer-centric. It’s pretty much table stakes. But a lot of companies don’t own up to the fact that the people who seem to be their customers aren't actually the customers they really care about.

You see, there are "customers" and there are customers.

In the council example above, the residents are "customers". Gotta check in and make them "feel heard". But the customers are property developers. They’re putting money into the coffers by creating more flats to tax. (Cynically – they may provide money in brown paper bags too.)

An obvious and zeitgeisty example is the social network that runs experiments on its "customers" (the users of the network) – all the better to serve its customers (the advertisers that pay the bills).

How about the bank that touts its customer-obsession because it conducts "research" with its "customers" (people with accounts and loans). But it makes decisions for its customers (investors who need a fat return on their capital, and regulators who can shut things down).

How about the badly-framed survey question that's designed to get the answer the person paying for it wants?

Or the hockey-stick graph in that pitch to the VC. It's based on "research" ... but they don't have a single paying customer?

All of the above is research theatre.

To some degree, it's inevitable. Appearing to have done the research, appearing to be customer-obsessed ... it sells.

But, designers, researchers, product people … is that really what you want to use your efforts for?

Here's the question that reveals whether you're doing research or research theatre:

What will we do differently based on the outcome of this research?

Is the answer "nothing"? ... Or any kind of mealy-mouthed avoiding the question?

Then you're hearing a curtain call ... ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats because tonight's production is about to begin.

If you're a researcher who's tired of the smell of grease paint, then know that you don't have to work in that kind of a business.

Look for a business where the "customer" is also the customer.

How to spot the customer?

Their money funds the business.


Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash