How Our Egos Get in the Way of Doing Market Research
April 3, 2017
Okay, so pardon this very “psychology-heavy” post. In market research, we are all about learning how people think, what motivates them, how memory plays into brand recall, and how perception works. We’re people researchers, so psychology theories are a central part of how we conduct research. I’ll spare you some of the more academic/theoretical musings behind our methodologies, but today, I do want to focus on a central theme that we see play out repeatedly in companies. Whether it’s a startup, large corporation, or somewhere in-between, if that company is run by humans, Ego, in all of its messy complications, is a part of how people make decisions.
So let’s talk about ego. Freud would be so pleased.
Psychology 101: What is “Ego”?
It’s totally okay if you don’t remember the specifics of ego theory from that psychology class you slept through attended back in school. The theory of people’s egos has become so central in our everyday cultural vocabulary, that it doesn’t require a lot of explanation, but, just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, let me make it clear what I’m referring to.
Ego: A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
While this definition may seem really basic, how it plays out in our behavior is actually a lot more complex. And, if we look at how our egos operate in a business environment, things start to get downright fascinating.
Our egos, just to clarify, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Our sense of self is what drives us, gives us definitions to rally around, and in many ways, forms our belief systems. However, where egos get messy, and particularly where “group egos” get complicated, is when we’re unable to look at other options, refuse to admit that we could be wrong, and operate with closed-minds. We do this simply because we believe that if what we – as a group – or I – as an individual – is right, then we don’t want to be challenged to look elsewhere for new ideas. Our egos block us from exploring outside options that are contrary to our beliefs.
Are you still with me?
A simpler way to say this is that we hate to be wrong. And this applies to groups – the organization that we’re a part of – as well as us, as individuals. It hurts our ego to think that our ideas aren’t always the best ones.
And therein lies the problem. Obviously, we’re not always right, and when we refuse to explore other paths, this can lead to costly mistakes in business, and, quite obviously, costly mistakes on a personal level.
So what does “Ego” have to do with market research?
In business, companies create a narrative around their brand and product. Companies develop their own cultures, and, they more or less expect their employees to subscribe to this culture. Let’s say that Apple is developing a new iPhone feature. Apple’s culture is to create products that are meticulously and stylishly designed. If you are an engineer at Apple, you subscribe to this philosophy. You wouldn’t have gotten past the job interview if you didn’t. So let’s say, for the sake of a hypothetical example here, that the Apple engineers come up with an idea for a new iPhone feature, and it meets their standards for design, simplicity, and functionality. Their corporate ego says that they can’t be wrong with this feature, because they’re Apple, and what they design and produce is right. People will love it. People will buy it.
Fast-forward a year. The product launches. The reviews are less than glowing. The blogosphere lights up with its criticisms. Sales are down. The shareholders put pressure on the company to do something about it.
The engineers are scratching their heads. Why? Because according to their collective corporate ego, what they designed met their standards.
Had they put down their corporate egos, challenged their assumptions, done market research, wherein they test and test and iterate the product based on what people think and how they use it, they would not have released a product that, unsurprisingly, ended up unpopular by the standards of the very people they were trying to sell it to.
I use Apple as a hypothetical example here, but I don’t mean to be bagging on Apple. All companies, including our company, are guilty of this. We let our egos get in the way. We don’t want to listen to outside opinions.
How market research can be transformative against the ego battle
Opening ourselves up to outside opinions, criticism, opinions, and testing is hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s hard. It requires an investment and philosophy on a company’s part (and the leadership there) to be open to user opinions and real-world use-cases. Often, market research delivers an answer that is painful for a company to hear – it may require that they go back to the drawing board.
Sometimes, it validates a product, and the company can push forward with confidence. But always, always, market research provides insights from customers that give a company assurance and feedback that will help improve a product. In the long-run, this usually ends up saving a company a lot of money if they’re not having to pivot later on, and, it builds customer loyalty, because companies start producing products tailored to how customers think and actually use products in real-world situations.
And that – customer satisfaction – that’s an ego boost.