Randomness and serendipity in research


‘So why does Keith Lemon remind you of Nandos?’

Not the sort of question I thought I’d be asking in my first focus group at Voodoo. However, in the next 15 minutes I found out that Giraffe was more of a Jonathan Ross (‘He’s interesting, funny – quite honest), nobody wanted to go for a drink with Yo Sushi, and, according to one respondent, pizza is like a page three model. ‘Nice to look at but not a lot going on up there’, he explained, thoughtfully.

So what do TV hosts and page three girls have to do with the casual dining sector? Absolutely nothing – but then that’s the whole point. Introducing chance and juxtaposing seemingly unconnected topics is well known as a way of making people think quickly and creatively, often leading to deeper thoughts and insights as they try to figure out exactly what is going on in their own minds. David Bowie, for instance, wrote several songs by using the ‘cut up’ writing technique (originally borrowed from William Burroughs). He would take a line of text, cut it up into one or two word fragments, and rearrange them to create an entirely different sentence. Which explains why Diamond Dogs makes so little sense. And it happens in science too: Whilst working on the problem of focusing the Hubble telescope, NASA engineer, James Crocker, found a solution whilst taking a shower in a German hotel room. He noticed that the shower head had a system of adjustable rods that could be used to accommodate any person, regardless of height. By applying this new information to solving the telescope problem, he was able to create a new way of refocusing it.

Whilst studying Library Science at university I was interested to see that more and more articles being published on how we can encourage creativity by introducing randomness and serendipity into the ways that we present information, whether in a physical library, or online. But this isn’t just something to be applied in academia – it can be relevant in our everyday lives. Maybe that’s why it’s more inspirational to browse in the random environment of a second hand book shop rather than simply searching for a known item online.

But why should we apply randomness to research?

Most moderators will have noticed that focus groups tend to talk themselves into an overly rational viewpoint. Ground-breaking advertising campaigns will be easily maligned by respondents because they’re ‘a bit silly’ or ‘don’t make sense’. The great thing about using this technique is that you gain the quick and honest ‘System 1’ response from the respondents before their ‘System 2’ has a chance to kick in and remind them that they’ve never actually seen a gorilla playing the drums to a Phil Collins song before.

So in future, perhaps we should refrain from asking respondents whether they ‘like’ a brand, because their answers won’t really tell us that much. What we really need to know is how much that brand reminds them of Keith Lemon.

By Rose Munro




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