Think technology will do all the work? Think again.

Dr William Green
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When Henry Ford was asked what he thought about marketing research, he responded that if he’d asked consumers what they wanted they’d have told him that he should make faster horses. For too long brands have followed a similar approach, demanding that marketing researchers use more data, bigger data, richer data, social data, transaction data, location data, mobile data, data, data, DATA!

But data isn’t the problem. The problem is figuring out how to turn all the data we have into meaningful insight. It’s often assumed that technology will solve this problem for us. AI will do this. NLP will do that. Machine learning will do the other. Let technology do the work.

In our work we study how market researchers are learning to use new sources of data for the benefit of their clients. One consistent and loud theme to emerge is that they think blind faith in technology is dangerous and misplaced. The world is littered with examples from high street brands that have failed to adapt to changes in shopping behaviour brought about by new technologies. But it’s also littered with failed or failing companies that throw too much money at technology in the hope that machines will save them.

True insights won’t be found simply by applying the latest machine learning, AI or clustering algorithm. People need to give meaning to data and communicate effectively to decision makers. Humans need to save the machines from themselves.

True insights won’t be found simply by applying the latest machine learning, AI or clustering algorithm

What this really means is that successful brands must design new ways of working to get the most out of technology without expecting technology to do all the work. This involves cultivating new working practices, relationships and thinking.

Bad technology usually doesn’t work because it fails to fit with existing conventions. This can have life-changing impacts on users and brands alike. For example, in safety critical systems, like medication-prescribing robots, poorly designed technology can directly harm patients and lead to lethal human errors. In work-based systems, badly designed technology might not be a matter of immediate life and death but can result in ineffective and cumbersome designs that slowly erode brand value. It can create inefficient practices, a frustrated workforce, poor user experiences and eventually market failure.

How can these damaging outcomes be avoided? By putting human-centred design (not machine-centred solutions) at the heart of any transformation programme. There are three key tenets that can guide brands who want to facilitate their people to make the most of the new data-rich world and the necessary changes in organisation strategy.


What do people do now and why do they do it? What are current practices designed to achieve?


What are the needs, abilities and limitations of the human actors that will use technology? There’s no point buying a faster car for someone who can’t drive.


When a new technology goes live, there are bound to be unexpected consequences. Embrace these opportunities to re-design with the workforce.

Happy employees lead to great work and happy clients will spend more money with you

So, think about data as a process. It doesn’t stop when you’ve implemented the latest data science technique, hired a hot-shot programmer or bought some new-fangled dataset.

As people learn to work with new systems, tensions will inevitably emerge. You’ll face trade-offs and uncomfortable last-minute decisions. When this happens, it’s easy to think that your colleagues are simply resistant to change and force a technological solution on them. If they don’t like it, they can leave.

But, in our experience, most people aren’t opposed to change. They just want their leadership teams to appreciate their organisational structures, existing working practice and conventions. When this happens, technology and the working environment are designed around the needs of the workforce. This will lead to a happy working life and a productive workplace. And, as the service-profit chain model tells us, happy employees lead to great work and happy clients will spend more money with you in the long term.

Ensuring marketers and researchers have both the tools, relationships and structures to work together with new sources of data is, in our opinion, the most effective way to unlock new insights. To ensure those tools, relationships and structures are effective, it makes perfect sense to incorporate human-centred design in the market research industry, with humans at the heart of technology.