Start With the Question: lessons from my 2nd year physics lab
Second year physics was like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and being told to figure out how to swim. You weren’t given everything you need for an experiment, and a description of how to perform it. Oh no. That stuff was for babies (otherwise known as first year students).
In second year, you were given a lab full of equipment, and a list of questions.
You picked one of the questions and figured out how to use the equipment to help you answer that question.
You were expected to not only use the physical equipment completely at your discretion, but also to pull from your arsenal of mathematical tools (differential equations, statistics etc) You also had to know how accurately you needed the answer because that would affect how you approached the problem.
Notice the order of that process:
- Start with a question
- Pick the right tools
- Get the data
- Answer the question with the right level of accuracy
My lab partner Marco and I decided to measure the speed of light. Mostly because it let us play with lasers.
We set up a laser at one end of the lab, and a mirror on the other end. We measured how long it took for the light to travel from the starting laser, across the room and back. We needed to figure out the most accurate way to measure the distance from one end of the lab to the other. In that process, we discovered that the floor tiles were laid out with extreme precision. In the end, we were getting a more accurate measure of the distance through counting tiles than any other technique we could think of in that crowded, messy lab.
I learned two things from this experience.
- Man, whoever laid those tiles had serious OCD.
- Physics professors don’t appreciate having the speed of light reported in tiles per second.
But the main point is that you had to figure out which equipment was the right one to use for any particular question. That was a skill that was actively taught in the physics curriculum.
But what does this walk down memory lane have to do with customer research?
When I started working in customer research, I was really confused by the fact that most of the time, people jumped to the method first.
- “We need to do a survey!”
- “We should run a focus group!”
- “I just read an article in Harvard Business Review about <new method fleezleLips>. Let’s do that!”
- “We need BIG DATA!”
This would be the equivalent of someone in a physics lab saying: “We need lasers!” no matter what. Even if the question was something like: “What is the humidity of the air?” Well ok, there were some people like that in the lab, but I tried not to hang out with those guys – they were a little weird.
Market research is not as “hard” a science as physics, but that’s no excuse for sloppy thinking people.
All the market research methods out there are great methods. They are all useful some of the time, but none of them are the best tool in the toolbox all the time. They each have their time and their place. The true expert researcher knows when to employ the right method for any given problem.
You need to start with the question first.
image source – Creative Commons license