Knowing is power

All consumption-related actions are about making choices – choosing the shampoo that best suits your desired hair style, using the pad instead of the TV set to watch a movie, deciding to go to the company store for further information rather than consult the website. Knowing how humans make these decision and what factors influence them is extremely valuable for marketers. Three factors are important here: decision criteria, the attributes by which an offer is judged – expectations, against which background an offer and its attributes are perceived – and needs, the driving force behind an action. This blog post is about the why and how of human insights generation.

Levels of insights (Source: BrandAction by Millward Brwon)

Decision criteria are those facets, that people look at the closest to make their choice. Whereas for an internet connection reliability and service are probably most important (, CSR activities by the provider might not be. Decision criteria are influenced by individual, psychological, social or cultural beliefs – for one group of people cars need to be fast and expensive-looking, for others efficient and practical. Decision criteria may not necessarily reflect factual standards. For example, digital cameras are commonly judged by the number of megapixels of their chip, but it is the lens that has the most influence on picture quality. Knowing the list of criteria for a certain group of people (user of a certain product, the special sociodemographic group that is targeted, the users of a certain touchpoint) helps focussing on (and improving) the right variables of an offer. Decision criteria can be revealed by asking people directly, by having them rank a list of attributes, or by listening to stories about situations where they had to make the decision. But as criteria are not necessarily fully aware to users or are freely expressed by them, it is also important to observe users while deciding and ask them afterwards about their thoughts and feelings in the situation.

Expectations set the background, against which information is valued. They are build up by past experiences with brand touchpoints or set by pre-information about the brand, eg. through advertising or word of mouth. Expectations can be met, exceeded, or in the worst case, missed, resulting in broken promises. Furthermore, expectations are evoked by common behavior of competitors, resulting in market conventions. Brands can sharpen their profile or even create a new market by breaking conventions. Breaking expectations is not without risk, as it can also repel people who like to stick to their routines. Knowing the inner standards against which your offer will be judged, proves as being helpful in optimizing the behavior of your brand. Expectations are due to individual learning histories, but there are also commonalities within certain groups of people. They can be unveiled by asking directly, through stories about past experience, and by having people judge the discrepancy to a beforehand set category standard.

Needs give behavior purpose and direction, it is because of this that they are among the most valuable sources of information about human actions and decisions, but are also the hardest to identify. There are different kinds of needs. They can be general and applying to all humans like those described by Abraham Maslow, Manfred Max-Neef or Henry Murray, or they can be individual and dependent on the situation like the need for mechanisms that make a banking website appear safe, or the need for people living in the city to use a car without buying one. Needs can be overt and easily self-described by customers/user, but more interesting are hidden, higher-order needs. Finding yet uncovered needs and creating solutions for them can boosts product innovation, touchpoint design or establish a more relevant brand position. Covering needs is mostly important because needs drive behavior and action rather than solely operating on the thought/image level. Assessing needs is rather difficult, they can only be inferred through story listening (with the TAT as standardized tool for general needs), tools like the laddering technique, or deducted from action.

Humans act upon multiple reasons, so in one action all three factors are present and intertwined. In user research, thus the three factors can usually be assessed together, ideally by observing and subsequent questioning for results close to real life situations. It is also advisable for Marketers to be present at at least some observations/interviews to build up the necessary empathy for customers/users. Usually the question for the right number of interviewees arises in user research. If it comes to psychological factors as little as 10 interviewees can be enough to provide a general understanding of user action and thinking (quantitative image research however needs at least 100 participants, but depends strongly on level of analysis).

Knowledge is Power – when buying or using your product, or when using your touchpoints, knowing which need people are trying to satisfy, what attributes they value, and against which background they perceive your offer, helps tremendously improving your offer and thus stimulating brand preference!