Research Steps Out Of The Playground

If you become a parent, a fair bit of your time is spent boggling at the things that your kids get to enjoy that you didn’t. Take playgrounds, for instance. When I was little, playgrounds involved skinned knees, peeling paint on wood, and skeleton frames of rusted metal we were sent off to climb like chimney sweeps.

1970s playground

These days, everything is bright and gorgeous and my kids get to go in a “Soft Play Area”. This is a paradise: torrents of foam balls, carefully netted walkways, all sorts of squidgy towers to climb and explore. The only bad part is that at some point you grow up and leave the awesome soft play area behind.

But on the other hand that isn’t so bad – there’s more fun to be had in the real world, even if it’s not all quite so simple and colourful.

Research ought to be about the real world. Often, it isn’t. In the fifteen years I’ve been in the business I’ve seen researchers spend an awful lot of time building soft play areas out of soft metrics. Soft metrics are ways to abstract the world, like segmentations and persuasion scores and brand personality grids, and quadrants. They are colourful and fun to play with and make a lot of easy sense. And just as I’m not sad the rusty playgrounds of my childhood have made way for soft play areas, I’m also not sad the grinding U&A data tables of my early research career have made way for these mostly intuitive and easily-understood soft metrics.

But they’re not behaviour. They’re not real. They don’t always have to be – if you’re testing new things then there is no behaviour to look at, and a proxy for likely actions is really useful. But sometimes soft metrics exert too much of a fascination.

I was judging some effectiveness case studies the other day – where people had to provide some proof of ROI, and of effectiveness. At least two of the studies said, well, we know this is effective because it moved our Net Promotor Score. And what did that mean for sales or customer acquisitions or actual behaviour? No information given. If it moved NPS, that was enough.


NPS is a soft metric – probably the most successful ever. In the soft play area of research, NPS is the giant ball pit – it’s irresistible. And probably very useful! But it’s not a measure of behaviour. It’s not even a measure of claimed behaviour. It’s a measure of claimed hypothetical behaviour.

One of the best things about research right now is that it’s growing out of its soft play areas a bit – moving, sometimes reluctantly, towards looking at behaviour or meshing with behavioural data. Behaviour isn’t the only thing that matters – there will always be a need to think about attitudes, and soft metrics have a role to play in that (we use some ourselves). But when you’re dealing with actual behaviour, you’re dealing with something you can experiment with and measure and test. Research should never lose its sense of simplicity and delight. But it would be good to spend a little more time out of the playground.


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