Micro Communications Analysis

When London Underground removed the River Thames from Harry Beck’s iconic tube map Londoners thought the design team had lost their marbles. Visitors to the capital lost their bearings. The famous topological map is about connectedness not distance: the blue bend in the middle is crucial to North/South navigation. Due to this cartographic de-clutter many tourists completed their journey with a bridge still to cross!

Receiving a tersely written terms and conditions document after completing a purchase can also leave customers staring at the deep end. The legalese of Micro-Communications can be dense with regulatory and corporate requirements. Yet remove too many and you destroy the raison d’etre. SubstanceQI’s Micro-Communications analysis helps determine navigation and accessibility for all customers, mass market and the newly arrived alike.

Going Places

Part 1: Don’t lose the customer

Birmingham is going places. The new Library, the new City Park and now the recently redeveloped New Street Station. A giant glass-roofed atrium crowns twelve refurbished platforms. The city core is to be increased by 25 percent, vitalized by improved transport connectivity. So I was aghast to see A-boards along a concourse five times larger than London Euston. Cheap looking signs that when viewed from the side, are two boards joined at the top with a strut. This isn’t about signage snobbery. It is about finding my way amidst prime retail offering.

There is a gulf between the civic pride (the new Birmingham) and the signals transmitted by these Low-Fi boards. A divide opens up in the service user’s mind between the master-plan of bigger, brighter, more ergonomic, and the quotidian of paper posters and arrows. Visitor Experience Research – from a range of passengers and shoppers – would have exposed what SubstanceQI calls Moments of Truth. A company’s relationship with a customer can be made or broken by how the customer feels they are being treated at one specific point in an interaction. First class inspiration or just another punter passing through?

THE NAME GAME – Making Attractive Employers

To hire the high grade employees required for a company it is productive to think of them as customers shopping around for an attractive workplace. Like most consumers their opinions blend fact with myth. Impressions of a business can be shaped by remuneration and career pathway. But it is also about the name game, making attractive employers.

Mr. Branson, brand ambassador par excellence, thrust Virgin upon us with risk-taking and exuberant flair. We were breathless for a while. That record company guy is publishing proper books! That publishing company is going to run trains! The breadth of the Virgin Group’s activities astounded: the do-it-differently sensibility seeped into public consciousness. Now it is Google who go-get the future by shouting about sweet office perks, lavish parental leave and data-led analysis of happiness. You can probably lounge on bean-bags and play table-football with creative types too. The consumer-as-potential-employee fantasizes about contributing to the brand.

Companies with stardust have sufficient shine to withstand flickers of reputation damage. But for everyone else, adverse publicity such as a grilling on Newsnight, could dissuade tomorrow’s employee from making contact. Gauche graduates aren’t the only wannabe workers gazing in at the window. 40 per cent of prospective management employees reject companies that have negative connotations. As people we naturally want starlight to fall on us too and dodge the rain.

Positive aspects of a working week can be obscured by a less-than-dazzling public persona. Substance QI’s Attractive Employers research proposition includes a 360 degree look in the mirror at your company. Looking inwards – to capture what current employees think and say about the company – can assist headhunters and refine communication materials. The route to successful retention and recruitment is to check current standing in the road. Don’t allow your company’s greatest asset to pull off in the direction of competitors. The name game, making attractive employers


If you go to work on a bus it’s an interesting ride. I get my kicks from route 88, not Route 66, because London Bus route 88 is associated with The man on the Clapham Omnibus. As I travel I imagine this fictitious fellow beside me, this fair-minded man, intelligent yet ordinary, whose attitudes have been noted by English Law since Victorian times. It’s as though I am on board with public opinion, bowler hat and curlicue mustache not required these days.

I don’t doubt the panoramic thrill of Route 66; the gas-stations, diners and hand-painted murals that arrived to entice the newly motorised consumer. I have a personal fondness for Gallup, a one horse town just a quick stopover on the busy road to Amarillo. Classic car aficionados will point to successful advertising campaigns that have hitched a ride along this winding trek through America’s frontier.

We should also celebrate the view from the window of a Double Decker Bus: a diorama of retail. The top deck is at optimal height to read the procession of shop names. There’s an ‘I’d like to go inside that shop one day’ intrigue to be enjoyed while in transit. As the signage streams past the passenger can spot the inventive among the perfunctory. In The Codfather the British and the American combine: if I want assault and battery with my Fish and Chips I know where to go. The aristocratic jostles with the uncouth in a Taxidermy shop named Get Stuffed. How do they answer the phone? – ‘Good morning sir, Get Stuffed.’ Some names obey the dictum of ‘explain what it is you sell or do’: the white goods purveyor Sellfridges is comically literal. Others speak to the blend of fact and myth in the consumer mind. The bed shop Beddy Buys sells a good night. Jack the Stripper sounds a handyman in two distinct trades.

Bus Route 88 was re-branded with jaunty graphics as The Clapham Omnibus in the 1990s, and since reverted to red livery. The original route, during the era of the Omnibus, is unknown. Did it ever exist? Route 66 was superseded
by the Interstate Highway. No longer an integral part of migration to the West, it remains imbued with cultural inviolability.

Back to the Future

Future Gazing. It is notoriously difficult. Our vision is blinkered by the limiting factors of the present. An endearing example is the portrayal of space travel in old sci-fi movies before manned space flight actually existed. The ‘space rocket’ always moves vertically, following the skyward trajectory. Orbiting a planet was not envisaged.

From the universe of consumer research the classic case is the mobile phone market of the early 80s. BT (UK) and AT & T (US) believed customers would never want to do stuff like phone home while on a bus: carphone owners said they wouldn’t want to be perceived as foolish or extravagant by strangers. The immediacy and speed of a digitally connected world was yet to come.

Visionaries are born in every era. Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of a man powered flying machine in the 16th century. Perhaps it won him greater patronage for his art, and probably a few laughs too. Today, ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘The Apprentice’ regard themselves as the gate-keepers of zesty product development, though much less epochal than the painter of the Mona Lisa!

Our entire domestic environment will be Smart according to a former BT Chief Technology Officer, speaking to The Telegraph:
“In 2045, upon waking, you’ll walk into the bathroom, whose mirror will check your blood oxidation. By the time you enter the kitchen your bodily needs have been assessed and a suitable smoothie will have been prepared, along with a suggested breakfast menu of food, which is optimised to match the day’s activities pulled from your diary”.

Would this be the high watermark of the labour-saving device, or a dystopian overload of bio-feedback?

Substance QI’s Fusion Days proposition helps companies accelerate new thinking. You have a suite of ideas that needs to be developed: we hot-house and manage the exploration process. Collaborative workshops, including co-creation sessions with your customers, determine which ideas have traction and momentum.

Rest assured nobody during Fusion Days will claim sooth-sayer status, and our feet remain firmly under gravity’s control. One day, soon, you may hear colleagues whisper ‘he’s living on a different planet’ and know they mean it in a good way.

Painful Moments

Last summer Tesco announced ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ would be replaced with an audio friendlier missive, less like an automaton. For a decade some shoppers have endured admonishment by a Dalek prior to exiting the store. The phrase has now become ironic, and entered legend. Ringtones and T shirts are available. Was it only the tone of voice that raised hackles or did the aversion run deeper? To tell customers they have failed to use the bagging area correctly is to scold them for not knowing how to shop, and with other people looking on.

If, like me, your grocery shop is a segue in your rushed routine between workplace and home, you will know what it is like to progress up an aisle, items tumbling from your grasp, before realising the need to return front of store to collect a basket. Is this a lack of shopper know-how on my part or a failure by the store to distribute baskets conveniently? And if you are not speedy enough to place on the conveyer belt the ‘next customer please’ baton, does the customer behind you fulminate and reach across to grab one on your behalf, or does the checkout person salvage your dignity in time?

Such events could be termed panic points rather than touch points or pain points, because of the sudden incursion they make into our sense of well-being. They are rooted in social embarrassment. In the journey through store such moments are incidental yet still contribute to the shopper’s internal scoreboard of gain and loss. Identifying practical and emotional needs – and what, if any, are tipping points – is the qualitative research challenge.

Fashion clothing stores invest heavily in Retail Theatre. The look, the merchandising, the attitude is now (or yesteryear). Yet the changing room can feel like the customer has inadvertently wandered backstage: cardboard boxes; mangled hangers; discarded tags; ‘Sale’ items nobody will ever purchase. When the mask slips, brand impressions die.

One of the roles of Substance QI’s Moments Of Truth proposition is to unpack consumer derived interactions. Many customers value things the company doesn’t even think about. Do not let your customer’s damaged feelings exterminate the Customer Relationship.

The Great British Lunch Break 3

Part 3: Save our Souls

The roadside café is Everyman’s deliverance. To sit down at a table at lunch time is to experience a shift of perspective upon the world. The desirability of a high-end dining experience recedes. For even if a posh meal were to announce itself, with a flourish of trumpets, rich in self-regard, it would still somehow contrive to remain the property of the management. Egg and chips however, arrive like a miracle, sure and certain of their consumption.
It’s not only physiology that drives this, not simply a delusion of the famished. The clue is in the opening hours – rarely past 4pm. Remember. Timing, plus spatial factors, equals heightened pleasure. An evening’s beer can morph a kebab into gourmet delight; a post-work cigarette in a dreary alley can confer luxury. It’s the sheer conviviality of the moment that makes it special. Café caterers are insightful observers of their customers. They treat us holistically even if the only branding they work with is Heinz Ketchup. The best staff do not hurry you, they know that café’s expand our sense of leisure beyond allocated time-out.
Personally I prefer this hint of waywardness to other kinds of eateries: those that sell carrot cake and karma are for students; scone and doily affairs are for sea-siders reaching the end of the pier. Some folk reserve their acclaim for the wooden panelling, mirrored walls, and stylish menu fonts of the Mod era. Classic design I know, but have you seen the prices? The Italian Job is daylight robbery.
The working man’s café is not full of skivers merely lovers of lassitude. How can any man be expected to do anything whilst partaking of the sacred grub? The best establishments will still regard your eventual destination as being of the first importance. Never a home, nor quite a harbour, these businesses are a magnet for the weary offering temporary anchorage. The pervasive mood is itinerant, transitory, of time taken out of life, of souls held in abeyance between knife and fork.

Ethnographic Observation in Qualitative Research – The Great British Lunch Break

Ethnographic Observation in Qualitative Research

Right angled triangular boxes. Row upon row. Running down the hypotenuse a front door entrance to what snuggles within. The packaged supermarket sandwich has become as integral to British life as the terraced street. The sarnie has heritage: back to when luncheon meant the remains of cold joints, and factory workers, too far from home or shop, needed portability. Nowadays, it is finding a spot to sit once you’ve purchased that’s tricky.

We are told taking lunch has declined. Yet in urban spaces, today in August, snack grazing is taking place on every slip of grass. We’re a munch bunch despite the credit crunch. Implored by European lifestyler’s to make greater use of noon-time, a jog around the park, a trip around an empty art gallery still feels out of step to the British. A continental breakfast we may enjoy, but hands off our lunch break!
The interpretation of midday consumer behaviour must fully encompass both time and spatial factors. Outdoor lunch-breakers when occupying, say, the green fringes of a church forecourt will imbue the event with ownership. They don’t transform the land-use but they do co-opt the space. The lunch may include activities additional to eating: phone calls, newspapers, smoking. A recent SubstanceQI study of ‘Smoking Occasions’ helped crystallise this lunch-time/space interface. A true ethnographic observation in qualitative research. Mindful of the de-normalisation of smoking these lunch-breakers inhabit an undesignated yet ring-fenced world. Or, alone, they seek out spaces to grab a moment, to be away from non-smokers.
Ethnographic observation and interception identified three typical lunch-smoker characteristics; the ‘Escape Artist’ gravitates to edges of localities to embrace me-time. The ‘Statue’ never moves from directly outside the workplace (the break simply punctuating time). The ‘Wanderer’ performs a succession of semi-variables; smoking prior to visiting the bank, nipping into the library, and only on the return trip to the office running into M&S and buying his favourite sandwich!

The Great British Lunch Break – Joys of Qualitative Research

Part 2: The tale of the famished Qualitative Researcher – The Great British Lunch Break

Starbucks talk of the third space, an area away from the distractions of both home and office. The chain has successfully captured the lunch time consumer by meeting the need for time-conscious, deliberate, repose. On a Great British Lunch Break myself whilst working as a qualitative interviewer- I’d find such an ambiance too confected. Perhaps my clipboard and biro just didn’t settle comfortably amidst the Laptops and Panini. Perhaps my thoughts still reverberated with respondent travails. I felt as though I had unwittingly burdened myself, got trapped within foreign parameters. I yearned for the free-thinking British roadside café: a straining silver tea boiler; plain crockery, humility.
The common café is a chance to reinstate oneself after the encroachments of the street, an enclave of real life. A Walls Ice-cream sign, creaking on rusty hinges, is a beacon whatever the weather. A beckoning cavern of ices, an oasis of hissing steam. The pulse quickens with a Great British Lunch Break. Mood gets a gear change. The sunny-side-up side of the street. A distant recall of maternal apron strings: this Great British Lunch Break will be an hour long hug. “Hello love, two sugars in yer tea or are you sweet enough already?”

What do the yanks, or the French know about food? A brasserie? Something your waitress should wear on her day off. My fellow escapees: Irish Road diggers full of blarney; Polish Utility pipe maintenance workers caked in indefinable dirt; Pakistani Gas meter readers fidgeting with their PDA’s; Nigerian Traffic enforcement officers, in uniforms of Soviet pomposity; Scottish Long distance haulage operatives with chunky chip fingers. Cockney cab drivers, uncomplimentary towards the Zeitgeist. And at corner-tables the shift-workers, daytime perch of night owls. It is Day-Glo Hi-Vi, not flashy Wi-Fi that cements our connection.
Formica table surfaces proclaim primary colour as if stolen from a 1960’s nursery school. Some might be a painting by Mondrian. Faded Linoleum, chipped Pyrex. The technologies of yesteryear surviving indomitably into the present pressed into service for their enduring utility not some queasy nostalgia. If I spread my paper questionnaires leisurely over the wobbly table no one objects; “Coffees don’t Costa packet here, ay mate?”
People who use the phrase the great unwashed diminish what they see. Nesting here are birds of a feather, voracious consumers of petrol, tabloids, crosswords, the Premiership, Kit-kats. Ribald banter may be the currency of exchange but an intelligent researcher should be able to find opportunities for consumer engagement anywhere.