“It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour” Dennis Denuto, The Castle 1997.
It is generally accepted that good research occurs when new and useful knowledge has been acquired. The exact process by which this happens is not quite as easy to define: there are many tools available to the modern researcher, and many philosophies about how these tools should be wielded. Although all good research is reproducible, free of bias and representative of the larger population, the actual method by which this knowledge is discovered is not completely prescriptive. It is often part science, part art, and part … well, part vibe.
Now, unless you are a fan of late 90’s Australian cinema, you may not fully appreciate the deep meaning that is contained within this deceivingly simple word. “Vibe” is more than a common feeling: it is elegance, simplicity, feeling, intuitiveness and depth all rolled into one. Vibe is an understatement, it is quiet and dark and sneaks in unnoticed – and yet, we see examples of it over and over again. Sergei Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs did not run focus groups to determine our collective future needs: simply put, they discovered the vibe of what we needed, wanted and desired – before the rest of us knew it was so.
So, just how does one uncover the vibe? Although there is undoubtedly an intangible element associated with the ability to see what others do not, there is also a more grounded, reproducible aspect to extracting the vibe. This scientific component lies in the ability to understand the core values associated with elements of human behavior. At our workplace, we call the process by which this happens Augmented Observation.
Augmented Observation is a method that we have developed specifically to research human behavior. The method is based on a combination of direct observation and semi-structured interviewing, conducted in-situ in places such as airport terminals and hospital rooms. The video footage and/or audio recordings of participant interactions we obtain are coded and analyzed in our labs with the help of various tools such as Noldus Observer and Atlas.ti.
We have found the above method to be very effective in understanding human behavior. Take for example a study conducted at Brisbane International Airport security screening. The project involved observation and analysis of the ebbs and flows in the security area during the course of a regular week. The observations were conducted in-situ, and also consisted of analysis of CCTV footage from the security area. The outputs were triangulated with interviews of security staff, and augmented by formal exploration of queuing theory. In the end, our research recommendations resulted in:
- Average wait times in security were reduced from 20 mins to 3.9 mins
- Passenger throughput improved from 260 pax/hr to 340 pax/hr
- Capacity increased by 48%, which resulted in a 40% reduction in need fro additional x-ray capital expenditure for 2010-2012
- Decreased security costs by 20%, while improving passenger satisfaction
The above results were achieved at Brisbane International without any capital outlays: the optimizations stemmed directly from a better understanding of how passengers and staff behaved in the security area, and the fine tuning of parameters associated with queue management. In other words, our research uncovered the security area vibe.
When it comes to studying passenger experience, we have found a few key elements to being essential. So, although there is no silver bullet for ensuring that great research happens on your next project, there are a few things that you can look out for in your quest to discover the vibe of things:
- Context is key. The context for the research can have a significant impact on the research outcomes. It is openly acknowledged that human memory is fallible, thus any data collection that relies on recall will necessarily be inaccurate. People have a tendency to rationalise and re-create what they cannot remember. By observing people in-situ, these challenges are mitigated.
- Words are influential. The words used in asking the question can have a huge effect on the results obtained. Surveys and questionnaires for example limit the responses to the set of questions asked. By their nature, they exclude the possibility of uncovering the unknown, as it is not possible to ask that which is not yet known. Keeping interview questions open ended and not leading is an essential skill to perfect.
- Rapport cannot be ignored. Rapport is possibly the most important element of data collection. As the researcher, you have about 10 seconds in which to establish rapport: trust, likeability and camaraderie. Failure on this element almost guarantees that honest and deep insights will not be uncovered.
- Finding the vibe. This is the ability to articulate the unsaid and see the invisible. It is what happens when words, observations and experience combine to extract the real reasons behind passenger behaviour. It is an art, and relies on the skills and experience of the researcher … and their ability to observe what is there, and also what lies hidden in the spaces in between the words and gestures of the respondents.
Sources: an overview of Augmented Observation and related methods can be found in Section 7 of this report. The Brisbane International security re-design project is detailed in this publication. Essential Australian cinema: recommended viewing with a friend from down under.