The Road to Nowhere

I was just told that students who multitask during lectures perform up to a whole letter grade poorer than their fellow students. Whether this is true or not, I’m pretty sure humans cannot concentrate fully on two things at the same time, our focus is split and our attention jumps back and forth.

In certain situations it certainly is worth while devoting your full attention to whatever you are doing. The students who want to perform well should preferably pay attention to the lecturer rather than their laptops or mobiles. The same is true for our jobs, the result is often better if the person doing the job is paying attention to it. Whether it be writing, cooking or taking care of sick people.

An interesting question is how the multitasking affects our media consumption. There are studies on this as well. The consumption certainly is becoming more and more fragmented which puts pressure on the media companies to produce content that succeeds in keeping the attention of the audience.

I have to admit that almost every time I sit down on the sofa I bring my iPad along. Because most of the TV shows are boring. So why not Facebook or read emails at the same time? At least I fool myself into believing I am more efficient this way. Still I was shocked when a TV strategist told me that the attention span of the TV audience of today is six minutes. Six minutes! Every six minutes something really interesting should happen on the screen or people zap away (or turn to their iPads). It is just crazy. How can we expect to relax or to learn something if our attention span is that short? At least I know I most often feel more stressed than relaxed after an hour of simultaneous usage of TV and FB. It’s a bit like eating a large bag of candy – it feels like a good idea at the beginning, but when it’s done you swear never to do it again. Until next time.

But there is at least one upside to surfing the web while watching TV. When you watch a TV show, you can easily enrich the experience by reading more on the topic at hand online. And this has become so much easier with the iPad. If I watch an old movie on TV I tend to look up the actors and the reception the movie got when it was released, who composed the music, which other films the actors have been involved in etc etc. You learn a lot! Take Vanilla Sky as an example, I had no idea that the name referred to the skies depicted by Monet until I read about it on Wikipedia.

I especially love enriching documentaries. The Finnish broadcasting company YLE just showed the four-part documentary Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World. A fantastic scenery and interesting people! I watched this together with my iPad, looked up the places Connolly visited on Google Maps, read about the inuits and about Pond Inlet, a place I didn’t know existed.

Pond Inlet by Michael Saunders

Simultaneous usage of media in a way that enriches the experience gives you so much more than only watching the documentary. At the same time you have to be careful not to overdo it. It is quite easy to get carried away and forget all about the documentary or film you thought you were watching. Maybe we do need some twist to the story telling every six minutes to stay focused?

Oh yes, I almost forgot, The Road to Nowhere:
Road to Nowhere by janers.sweeter

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Poor research is a real burden for media

With a vast experience of research my heart always cries when I come across poor research. Be it poorly designed or poorly presented – it’s such a waste of money! Sometimes I also get angry. Angry with the research institutes who sell fancy “truths” to gullible companies.  Most of the time, however, there’s not much you can do about that, other than hope the public isn’t stupid enough to believe everything they hear. For instance, when some poll tells you that a certain political party has gained in supporters at another party’s expence when in fact the margins of error make any such conclusions null and void.

But sometimes, when this poor research lands close to my own turf, I feel the need to act.

Last Friday I spent all day tearing a research concept to pieces. Comparing the results to the questionnaire and trying to make sense of it all. It’s a study that’s been done four times already and at the second and third round I was in the audience when the research institute presented the results. Both times I politely asked the researchers how they calculate certain key figures. But the answers never satisfied me. As the study was commissioned by our newspaper association and not our company, I decided to let it be, it was not my fight.

Then came the fourth round, using exactly the same concept, again with exactly the same dubious figures. So I sat down, once again, with the report and the questionnaire and pinpointed the problems with the study in a lengthy email and sent it to the persons responsible for commissioning the study. I just hope it is well received and at least leads to a thorough discussion.

Poor research should be banned. Even though we have the Esomar professional standards we are presented with way too much cr*p even from research institutes complying to the standards. The research institutes  really should go the extra mile on assuring the quality of their concepts and services because it isn’t easy to commission extensive surveys ( Esomar also has a guideline for commissioning research. Read it. And there are independent researchers out there who can help you with the commissioning. Use them.). There are so many factors to weigh in, ranging from the aim and the sample to the analysis and  conclusions. If you aren’t a research professional yourself you should be able to rely on the research institutes.

My personal favorites in the Esomar code are the following basic principle articles:

1a and 1b) “Market research shall be legal, honest, truthful and objective and be carried out in
accordance with appropriate scientific principles“. “Researchers shall not act in any way that could bring discredit on the market research profession or lead to a loss of public confidence in it.” – This is something all researchers should take to their hearts. Sadly enough many don’t. Just think about how often you stumble across crazy research and crazy conclusions. Research that does damage the reputation of market research as people either laugh at it or simply don’t believe in it.

4 c) “Researchers shall on request allow the client to arrange for checks on the quality of
data collection and data preparation.” This article implies that the quality of your work should be impeccable. You should be ready, at any time, to let the customer audit your work. Way too seldom customers ask for it though. Working at a research institute myself some years ago, I offered this option to sceptical customers – nobody has ever offered it to me.

The research on media in Finland is seldom good. Too much is lost in the margins of error, too many conclusions are derived from studying means.The ambition to cover too much has resulted in monstrous surveys that serve nobody well. Thankfully, the print media audience measures has been criticised publicly by more and more people and some improvement is under way.

If we make decisions based on mediocre studies and information that cannot hold for scrutiny we won’t end up with winning products. As long a we measure a total audience and try to describe that mass of heterogeneous people as one entity we fool our selves and we fool the advertisers. We need more detailed information, we need to open our eyes to see the multidimensional audience we have. Gone are the days when one product suited all and the audience could be treated as one. Thus we should also realise that the surveys we use to measure our audiences should be re-designed to fit the needs of today. Although we might lose some trends and many grand old men and ladies will grunt in discontent, we need the change. The poor research of today is only hampering us, so let’s throw it out and bring in research that really benefits us!

Whom are we designing tablet apps for?

The tablets buyers of today are still early adopters, I’m sure we all agree on that. And at least in the US they are more often than not young affluent men. But appart from that, what do we know about the users? What do we know about our media consumers in general?

It’s easy to treat all users as one entity, as one homogeneous group of people who all use their tablets in the same way. The recent Mintel study on tablets and eReaders, tells us what tablet and eReader users do with their devices:

This is interesting reading as such but how about different user profiles? Means and averages aren’t a very good basis for development actions. We need to know more about the tablet user behaviour before starting our design process.Not all users use their tablet in the same way. This can be seen in the above diagrams. But the diagrams don’t tell us whether those who read RSS feeds also read blogs or whether those who watch movies also read news. And so on.

We need to identify the different user groups and design for each group separately, or at least keep them all in mind when designing.

Just like we know from the print media business that some read their papers from cover to cover and others only skim through the newspapers reading what they find interesting, we need to be aware that not all tablet users behave in the same way. Even though the market is still young I’m sure that there are different behavioural groups emerging. Some persons want breaking news fast whereas others like to read thoroughly about the subject at hand. Some want news about politics others about celebrities.

The technology now provides us with the tools to customise the experience. Using the same backend platform we can produce multiple experiences which can cater to the needs of different user groups. Why not do it?