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Research? Just stand back and let it happen!

Trendtrak and Interactive Meetings (IML), September 1996

Tim Macer finds an enthusiastic response to the active use of passive data-gathering

It's an expensive business, gathering data. In the cost-conscious nineties, there is often pressure to squeeze sample sizes as a means of keeping down costs. Costs may fall, but so does the value of the research if the cells in your table are virtually empty when you start to apply any filtering. Given this climate, it is remarkable that passive data collection methods, where interviews are plentiful and cost pennies to collect, struggle to gain acceptance. By going to where the target group of respondents already are, researchers using this approach seem to strike gold, for they find people falling over in their willingness to be interviewed.

TrendTrak is an American passive interviewing system which has been successfully used in public access areas like car dealer showrooms, airport executive lounges and trade fairs. Basically a microcomputer in a tough metal box with a big lead acid battery, it works for hours between recharges. When mounted in a display fixture, all you see is its stylish top with a smallish screen and just fourteen clearly labelled buttons. It handles a questionnaire rather like a CATI or CAPI system, where each question offers a menu of choices as answers. It incorporates seamless, invisible routing, support for interviews in multiple languages, and it deliberately has no facility to go back. An internal modem makes it easy to load questionnaires and unload completed data when the device is out on the road.

Michael Brown at Research and Communication Ltd, UK distributors of TrendTrak, told me that at its heart is a standalone 256K computer. Don't be fooled by the apparent lack of megabytes. It has the capacity to hold hundreds of questions and the results of hundreds of interviews. It is well designed and completely foolproof to anyone who might wander past and use it. Research and Communication will hire the equipment out and help with programming the questionnaire into the system.

Geoffrey Dixon, Director at Interface Research, has extensive experience of using TrendTrak. His firm specialises in carrying out market research at exhibitions and trade fairs. He told Research "What people have at an exhibition is a common purpose. They are highly knowledgeable and are usually the senior people in their field. Getting these people to take part in a survey is normally difficult and very expensive. At an exhibition, they come to see you."

"TrendTrak cannot do everything, for instance it can't ask open-ended questions. But the art is to use the technology to its fullest extent. At last year's Motor Show, for instance, we did a survey using just three terminals, and collected 1400 complete interviews. The results were superb."

I asked Geoffrey how they guarantee the accuracy of self-administered questionnaires. "It is a delusion to think people will waste their time deliberately giving the wrong answers to a survey. There are always one or two cases we pick up: children, for instance, who play with the terminals." Each interview is timed so they can estimate the amount of thinking time the respondent has put in, and exclude cases which fall short of the estimated minimum.

"At a solicitors show, we got 15% of the solicitors attending to take part in our survey. These people would be impossible to get hold of normally. But because they were at the show and they had a point of interest, we were able to interview them. We have almost a zero rejection rate. When people say they will come back later, they do. It is absolutely remarkable. People are keen to share their views, as long as it is convenient for them."

Charles Broome, Fragrance Consultant at Quest International, a division of Unilever, developed what he calls their "Fragrance Exploratorium" with a team of designers, using passive data gathering technology from IML (Interactive Meetings). Quest spared no expense in creating a stunning walk-in setting for scent sticks and all manner of other sensory stimuli: colour, sound, texture.

"The Fragrance Exploratorium is situated in the atrium of our company where we receive about 50 visitors a day. It is designed to educate people about fragrance. It is also designed to educate us, because as people are exploring the fragrances, it is quietly gathering information. We describe it as a consumer understanding tool." It has put them, Charles claims, "at the cutting edge of the understanding of fragrance."

"People want some kind of reward if they take part in market research. If you make something as attractive as this, you basically disguise the fact that it is research. People obviously enjoy their experience. It is certainly very cost effective for us, and we also have the convenience of having on-line market research. If we have a new fragrance to try, we can put it on the Exploratorium and get immediate reactions, which is much faster than commissioning research with focus groups."

IML's people meter handsets were used to great effect in the technology session at this year's MRS conference. Alistair Whitmore, director at MORI, regularly uses them to objectify audience research using focus groups. Participants are given a "MORIMeter" to register their current level of interest while a videotape is played. The handsets feature a knob or dial to allow a measurement on a continuous scale. This information is recorded along with the programme, on a second videotape as a series of coloured lines, one per handset plus a group average. When played back, the whole programme becomes a chronological chart of the wavering strength of interest of the group.

"The purpose is not to pick out individuals, but to use the average to structure the subsequent discussion about the programme. Its value is in its contribution to our qualitative research. When it has been used it has gone down very well with the client. It also provides them with something that is concrete and objective."

There are probably many more applications for these types of passive data gathering devices. Used with imagination, they make being a respondent a more rewarding experience, as reflected in good involvement and low refusal rates. It is clear is they can be used effectively in the field to gather huge amounts of data, reliably, inexpensively, and without interviewer-induced bias. What better justification do you need for putting the fun back into interviewing?

It appears that the TrendTrak solution referred to in this article is no longer available.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 1996, Issue number 364.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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