When I started in market research, the main deliverable we were passing to my very first client was a set of tables, one for each country we were researching for them. The client, a specialist research buyer within an insight team, would then check them thoroughly, trawl through them for mistakes and often find one or two, then use them internally to create whatever reports were needed. Once a year, all the findings would be brought together in a PowerPoint set which would be used as the basis for an insight presentation.
Who sends tables to clients these days? The nature of the research deliverable has changed, and in my view not just what we deliver to clients, but what is used by researchers to report on results. More and more it seems to me that between the production of tables and the stage at which someone sits down and actually starts trying to work out exactly what the research is saying, there is now an intermediary stage which involves the production of large numbers of PowerPoint slides. The analysis and interpretation of quantitative research results is now most often done working from a set of slides than from a set of tables.
Previously, charts and tables were drawn up to illustrate some aspect of the story as identified in the tables. Now, the tables are more often used as a back-up, to drill down into demographics, for example, when an explanation is needed. The actual results are viewed and comprehended by means of scaled visuals, where the difference between figures, the change over time, etc, can been seen in terms of the size of two bars or the shape of a line.
What does this mean in practice? It means that a lot of PowerPoint charting is done which is never actually presented, and a good deal of which might never actually make it clientside at all. It means that there is now an additional, mandatory, phase between final tables and interpretation and reporting during which the dataset is turned into a visual format. It means a lot of toggling between PowerPoint decks to copy and paste slides, and the transferring of data from one chart datasheet to another, in order to bring together the actual story.
To do the job of analysing the results, researchers need a set of visuals straight away. I would argue that we should be moving away from seeing tabulated results in themselves as a research deliverable, even when being delivered to a researcher and not the end user. Tables in themselves are merely an intermediary stage of aggregating data into groups and producing percentages, nets, combinations, etc. Research deliverables should include visuals as standard. At the very least that should include questions charted in an intelligent way, and ideally would include plenty more options than that.
And we need to find a more efficient, fast and accurate way of producing these visuals than creating weighty PowerPoint reports from final data sets. Software now exists which can take respondent-level (or aggregated) data and create charts and tables that can be saved so that final or different data files can be run against the same setup. A basic setup can be delivered to the researcher who can then manipulate it to explore the data – or download it into PowerPoint to browse it. Automation can be used to create a simple set of charts, not the final output but the first thing the researcher will look at when starting to understand and interpret the data. This should be something that’s delivered, quickly and simply, at an early stage post fieldwork.
The technology is already there for us to do this. The days when researchers have to copy and paste a load of Excel tabulated data into charts before they can start to have any insight into what the results are saying, really should be well and truly over.