Quantitative research: what is the value of an unexpected result?

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Why “non-results” are a source of innovation and growth


Data analysis

In research, people and data must first be “listened to,” and it was with this premise in mind that a few days ago, during a time of discussion with colleagues, we found ourselves dealing with a decidedly prickly issue for those working in this field, namely: what value does a “non-result” have.

The latest research we worked on involved us in the investigation into people’s perception of a brand, the proposal of one creativity rather than another within an advertising spot, and putting our eyes back on the end graphs activity, we realized that those data had not detected any statistically significant differences. In practice, it was as if no variation had emerged that could be considered relevant from a statistical point of view and for non-experts this could have been translated into a simplistic “the research did not produce any results”.

And hence, the question about the value of the data.

We wondered how correct it was to say of a search with seemingly insignificant results, that it did not work and how, instead, it was important to listen to those same data in order to report to the customer a result, different from expectations, but that could have found interesting insights to look at that research from a different angle.

But let’s start with the basics.

What is meant by a result in a research?

To answer this question, it is important to understand what is meant by result. The Treccani encyclopedia defines result as, “That which results as the final and conclusive outcome of an action, activity or operation.”  Thus, starting from this definition, one can immediately understand how, in fact, it is not correct to speak of a lack of result or “no result,” but more of a lack of expected result.

To date, in fact, in the business world, one of the biggest challenges for researchers is to navigate between initial expectations and the actual results obtained during a study. Often, we are faced with a disparity between what we expect to find and what actually emerges. However, the importance of these unexpected results is often underestimated or ignored, when it should be celebrated as a fundamental part of the scientific process from which, business also benefits.

Where is the value?

The heart of science and the scientific method, in fact, lies in being open to surprises and unexpected discoveries. Results that do not reflect hypotheses identified a priori can be a source of great value, as they push us to reconsider our beliefs and deepen our understanding of consumer behaviors.

When a result does not confirm our expectations, it is easy to fall into the temptation to consider it as an exception or even to ignore it. However, it is precisely at these times that we should pay more attention. These results give us the opportunity to explore new paths, discover new perspectives and develop more robust theories. They also help us avoid the risk of confirmation bias, a cognitive phenomenon that leads us to selectively search for and interpret information to confirm our pre-existing beliefs.

When we are willing to embrace and explore these findings, we can identify new opportunities for differentiation and market positioning. For example, a company might discover that a particular product attribute, which had not previously been considered relevant, has a significant impact on consumers’ emotional engagement. Leveraging this knowledge, the company could adapt its branding and communication strategies to maximize emotional impact and connection with the audience.

Therefore, the value of these results lies here, in understanding that these are results exactly like the others and that the true value lies in the ability of researchers to maintain an open mind that allows them to take advantage and value from results that apparently have none.

What are the implications?

Once we accept the value of “nonresults” as an integral part of the research process, we can begin to examine their practical implications.

The challenge, however, lies in effectively communicating the value of these “no results” to the customer or stakeholders. Often, there is a tendency to consider only results that confirm initial assumptions as valid or significant. However, neglecting unexpected results can lead to a distorted view of reality and wrong business decisions.

It is essential, therefore, to take a transparent and honest approach to communicating research findings. Rather than hiding or downplaying “non-results,” we should explain the context in which they emerged and the potential impact they may have on business strategies. This requires an accurate and compelling narrative that highlights the importance of exploring even the roads less traveled and embracing uncertainty as an integral part of the research process.

“Non-results” as opportunities for growth

In addition, it is critical to actively involve the client or stakeholders in the process of interpreting the results. Instead of presenting “non-results” as a failure or disappointment, we can engage them in a constructive discussion about how these results can influence their business strategies and future decisions. This not only increases confidence in the research process, but can also lead to new opportunities for innovation and differentiation in the marketplace.

It is important to remember that research is an ongoing journey of learning and discovery. Today’s “non-results” could be the starting points for tomorrow’s discoveries. Keeping an open and flexible mindset is critical to driving progress and innovation in business and research.

“Non-results” then, should not be seen as a failure, but rather as an opportunity for growth. Celebrating the uncertainty and unpredictability of research makes us more resilient and able to adapt to the changing challenges of the marketplace.

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17 May 2024 Luca Martorano

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