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Steve Jobs once famously said that ‘people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’ He wasn’t a huge fan of consumer research, feeling it was historical and only ever capable of measuring what was already known, the status quo. He was interested in the future, not the past.

The fundamentals of marketing, as a concept, is to meet the customer’s needs, and to do that you have to understand what those needs might be. The market research industry seeks to measure, map, monitor and track these consumer needs, helping brands draw insight to maintain their relevance. Consumer needs and values change regularly, and so today, consumer insight, data, surveys, customer satisfaction tracking and net promoter scores are a core part of any business organisation.

market research. consumer research industry

What Customers Say vs. What They Do

I worked in the market research industry for over 20 years, running my own specialist agency for most of that time. As a social scientist, I am always fascinated by consumers, how they behave, their opinions and their motivations. Over all that time I became certain of one thing. There are so many biases inherent in consumer research that the arising data should not always be taken as truth. It turns out that the customer is not always right.

While keynoting a conference last week, the speaker ahead of me presented some insight around sustainability and supply chain. Customers had been asked if they would prefer to receive their ordered item within a 1–2-day delivery window (sooner) or within a 3-4 day one (later). The second option was presented as a more sustainable option, having understandably less climate impact.

delivery, consumer getting a product at home

The data as presented seemed to point to the fact that many consumers would accept later delivery alternatives given the option. Now I have not read the report from which the data was taken, nor am I exposed to the methodology or the research instruments used.  But I do not believe the insight for a moment. If you give a customer two options, and tell them one is more sustainable, we should not then be surprised they tell us that this is the option they would prefer. They will tell you what they think you want to hear, or the answer that makes them feel good about themselves. This finding is not a great predictor of likely actual behaviour.

Intended Actions vs. Real Behaviors

Let me give you a simple example. If you ask 100 single young men and women heading to a nightclub this weekend a question around their intention to use a condom, should they have casual sex later that night, you will no doubt have a close to 100% result. ‘Of course I would’ they will say. ‘It is casual sex and so I don’t really know the other person’ and so the risk of STDs and pregnancy are top-of-mind. However, our arising data from this study can only report their intended, rational behaviour, their projected future self.

nightclub experiment consumers survey

The reality is that alcohol consumption, drugs, hormones, atmosphere, and attraction all have a part to play, and their actual behaviour, in the end, may be far from their earlier perceptions. It is why doctor, pharmacy and family planning clinic waiting rooms are full of customers every Monday morning.

The Observation Error in Research

Consumers are the same. What they tell us they will do, or think, is often very different from actual behaviour. In fact, the very fact we are asking them the question often dictates how they answer. In research, it is known as Observation Error, how the act of observing or seeking to measure something inherently affects the variable under study.

Recently I was reminded of Simulation Theory and I think this is a fascinating overlap between the worlds of consumer insight and quantum physics, an overlap which, let’s face it, does not occur often. So, if I may, let me bring you on a quick journey through particle physics, lasers, and reality. We’ll get back to consumers later.

Consumer Insight and Quantum Physics

Thomas Young

In 1801, a British scientist named Thomas Young invented the Double Slit Experiment. In studying light, he demonstrated, for the first time, that light behaved not as a particle, as Newton previously thought, but as a wave. He shone light through two narrow slits, projecting it on to a screen.

If light behaved as a particle, what we would have expected to see on that screen would be two strips of light, the particles of light having passed through whichever slit and then hitting the screen surface, the photons of light acting like individual tennis balls bouncing off a wall, leaving their mark.

slit experiment consumer research

Assuming the light source is shone directly at the initial plate, the light particles have equal chance of passing through one slit or the other, meaning both strips will be relatively balanced in intensity.

What actually emerged was not a two-strip pattern but an alternating pattern of light and dark bands. This made absolutely no sense. If light travelled as a particle, how was this multi-band pattern appearing?

slit experiment consumer research

The Phenomenon of Wave Interference

The answer was Young’s discovery. The interference pattern on the wall was being caused by waves. In physics, when two waves overlap, there is ‘constructive interference’, that is they combine to create a larger wave. These were the bright bands of light.

slit experiment consumer research

The opposite is ‘destructive interference’, when the two waves overlap in such a way, they then cancel each other out. In Young’s experiment, this was showing up as the dark bands. So, the same single light source was in fact resulting in a multitude of light bands, an interference pattern, proving that light moved as a wave, not as a particle.

slit experiment consumer research

So far so good, right? By the way, you don’t need to completely understand this to get the coming metaphor. Don’t panic. So Young proved light was a wave not a particle. Job done, move on. And he did. He died young (pun intended), aged 56, but not before unlocking Egyptian hieroglyphic code for us all. He was the 1800’s Indiana Jones, except he died at home from an asthma attack, not in some Egyptian desert chasing the Ark of the Covenant.

The Evolution of Wave Behavior

As technology developed, this experiment evolved. In the 1920s, it was demonstrated that electrons showed the same behaviour, and this was later extended to atoms and molecules, basically to all matter, the building blocks of reality as we know it. They seem to move as waves, not as particles at the quantum level.

By the 1960s we were capable of firing single electrons. The original interference pattern was thought to be caused by the various light particles interfering with one another after they passed through the slits, causing the wave pattern. However, these later electron experiments, firing single electrons at the plate, resulted in the same interference pattern.

The Wave-Particle Duality

The explanation messed with scientists’ heads. Cover one of the slits and you’ll get a single light strip, like that tennis ball passing through one slit and hitting the wall and leaving its mark. A single strip, and light behaves as a particle. Uncover the second slit and the wave/interference pattern re-emerges, the single electron (tennis ball) seemingly interfering with itself, now behaving as a wave. This became known as wave-particle duality, that matter could seemingly be both things at once.

The single electron basically seems to pass through both slits simultaneously, even though there is only one of itself. This hurts our heads and our understanding of matter (and why I didn’t study quantum physics at university, marketing was much more fun). How can one electron be in two places at once? Two particles hitting off one another after passing through the slits makes sense, forming a wave. How could one single electron, interfere with itself, to form the resulting wave pattern? It made no sense.

The Quantum Enigma of Observation

But, here comes the fascinating part, and the reason I am using this metaphor today. Hungry to understand more about these shape-shifting electrons, the next experiment set out to measure which slit this single electron was passing through. They wanted to measure the route the electron took to see if they could understand it in more detail. Was it splitting somehow before arriving at the plate? The resulting wave pattern clearly hypothesised that the electron was passing through both slits simultaneously. So, it made sense to measure its path.

slit experiment consumer research

When Particles Know They’re Watched

Detectors were set up at the slit plate, to accurately measure which slit each individual electron passed through. The moment they activated the detectors, the electrons behaved themselves and passed through the slits as individual particles, again forming the two simple bands of light. The very act of trying to measure what was going on meant they reverted to acting like particles. Turn the detectors off, and they went back to being waves. It was as if they were aware they were being watched (and this happens regardless of the type of detector used)

The finding: electrons will act like complicated waves until observed. Try and measure what they are doing and they’ll instantly collapse, behaving as simpler particles. At the quantum physics level, the laws of our universe, the laws of matter, it turns out that setting out to measure things effects your result. It literally changes the nature of reality. The act of observing changes the behaviour, it is responsive to our attention.

Perception and Reality: An Optical Illusion Perspective

One way of looking at this is the way our own brains see optical illusions. Below, you can see both a man hugging a woman or a woman hugging a man. You can make your mind toggle between them if you look at the black & white image, seeing one, then the other, but it is difficult for your brain to see them both at the same time, even though you know both are true.


Another commonly used analogy is video game graphics. Inside a video game, the entire world is coded for you to explore as a player, but only the relevant part where you are now playing is shown on screen. As you move through the game, the new areas you enter are rendered in real time, the objects and environments only loading when the player turns the corner or interacts with them. The entire gaming world is not sitting there, already rendered off screen, waiting for you to enter. That would take far too much processing power.  As you turn your attention to it, it then responds. It comes into being because you turned your attention to it.

Physicist Niels Bohr best described the phenomenon by simply saying ‘particles don’t have definite properties until they are observed’, now known as the Copenhagen interpretation.  So, in our light experiment here, that means that photons exist in a wavelike form representing a range of possible positions or possibilities, until they are observed. When we observe or measure the photon, we force it to choose a definite state, and it becomes a particle.

consumer research surveys

The Dual Nature of Consumer Behaviour

And this brings us back to consumer measurement and insight (I did promise I’d get back there eventually). In seeking to observe and understand the issue, we force the respondent to ‘chose a definite state.’ However, consumer behaviour acts more like a wave, several likely outcomes or ‘bands’ like the interference wave pattern, always exist. However, in attempting to measure things we force their response and they then give us answers, acting like a particle.

If the carbon footprint impact was lower, would you choose a slightly later delivery date? Of course, in theory yes, the ‘particle’ answer. Simple and rational.  The actual moment arrives and the customer is ordering the item, they need to wear it for that party tomorrow so they look good in front of their ex. Screw sustainability and the climate, I want it now. Welcome to the wave of consumer irrationality. The answer you gave relating to your predicted behaviour was false.

steve jobs consumer research quote

Should We Stop Asking Our Customers for Their Opinion?

So, back to Steve Jobs. Imagine showing a group of focus group consumers an iPhone before they existed, or trying to explain to them what it could do. I imagine they’d all give feedback like ‘oh it’s very big, I’d never carry that around’ and ‘that’s far too complicated, buttons for everything, what are they called, Apps? No, no. That’ll never take off’.

Customer satisfaction tracking is the same. How often are we getting answers that are not accurate? Think about that moment in a restaurant, when you’re not overly satisfied with your meal, but then instinctively say ‘it’s fine thanks’ when the waiter walks past and asks if everything is OK. They are skewing their own feedback data by asking in a positive frame. If they said ‘I’m just stopping by to ensure that everything is up to our, and your, high standards. Did we meet your expectations today or is there something we could have done better?’ they might get a more honest answer. In much of customer satisfaction tracking we get the results we want because of the way questions are posed and the research instruments and timing.

Does this mean we should stop asking our customers for their opinion? No, but it does mean that we need to acknowledge that a lot of the opinion data we gather is inherently flawed in the way it is collected, the phrasing of the questions, the research instruments used, the sample frame, or even the fact we are asking the questions at all.

The Ethnographical Approach in Consumer Research

In the end, I am personally a fan of the ethnographical approach to consumer research. Borrowed from anthropologists, it is about immersing yourself in the subject, in the field, observing and deducting as opposed to overtly measuring. Over my career, I spent thousands of hours in stores and poring over shopper data, watching shoppers time spent at fixtures, store flows, watching consumers in bars and restaurants, and in their kitchens (they knew I was there for that last one!). I spoke to consumers casually in consumption environments without them knowing I was researching a specific brand or product category. I used biometrics to measure shopper stress & excitement.

Be Careful in What you Measure

I will leave you with this. The double-slit experiment is often quoted as proof that we are living in a simulation. A bit like Jim Carey’s character in the 1998 Truman Show movie, perhaps we are all living inside a rendering of reality. If the basic state of matter changes when observed, acting as expected when looked at, but changing behaviour when left to do its own thing, perhaps we are looking at base coding. Perhaps, after all, we are all living in the Matrix, events and matter all somewhat programmed and pre-determined.

If that is true, perhaps I have cracked the code and have just invited you to join me in the biggest secret you will ever know. But beware, the system is all knowing and could come for us at any …  00101000 1001001010 10010010010100001 0101001010010100 110101 1001 1110 101 1010 10010 1010101 0

Ken Hughes, known as the King of Customer Experience, helps brands and businesses all over the world to better understand their customers motivations. He is both a wave and a particle at the same time. Book Ken to inspire your audience at your next event. He promises he won’t get into quantum physics on stage.

To learn more about the double-slit experiment (and from where some of the content above was taken), watch this 6-minute video from Newsthink:

If over your lunchbreak today you really want to kick back and explore some fascinating around quantum physics, watch the video below which goes farther and proves that the electron will actually behave in the way the future expects it to, suggesting that perhaps matter alters its state relative to time. This one might hurt your head a little, but the theory means that our world as we know it only appears that way, as we only understand time in our current 2-dimension reality. If matter can change form in the present based on something yet to happen in the future, then clearly perhaps time is an illusion. Enjoy eating your sandwich to that.

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A blog to  inspire and delight