Exploring the say-mean gap in design research

Larry Irons · December 3, 2008 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/5aa

Understanding brands through deep metaphor

 In recent posts at Skilful Minds I discussed different gaps, from the community gap in particular to the encompassing engagement gap. Each of those discussions attempted to size up a disparity between the attention currently given to the importance of community and social media by companies and the reality of the commitment of resources to them based on recent research in the United States and Europe.

We hear a lot of discussion these days about Web 2.0 and social media, especially on whether adoption is driven by demographics, lifestyle, or something else. Recently, while reading Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, it struck me that regardless of the patterns of Web 2.0 and social media adoption, the applications tap into basic sensibilities for connection that we all share, regardless of age and lifestyle. As I note below, a sense of connection is an example of a deep metaphor that the Zaltmans discuss in relation to people, products, and brands.

Deep metaphors underlie the way people understand the context of problems they face in their everyday lives. Though the concept of deep metaphor was initially outlined in Lakoff and Johnson's book Metaphors We Live By, Marketing Metaphoria takes it a step further by developing useful techniques for exploring how deep metaphors affect the perception of brands and products and, by implication, how to approach the say-mean gap in design research.

The Say-Mean Gap

Marketing Metaphoria introduces a slightly different angle on the engagement gap, an angle that involves the overall way companies understand what their customers say they want. The Zaltmans describe a say-mean gap that typically arises "when consumers make non-routine decisions, for example, when they respond to a new product or switch brands" (p. 9).

Do your customers mean what they say about your brand, or what they want from your products and services? The Zaltmans are pointing to a fundamental challenge facing anyone who listens to customers, whether in customer communities, blogs, focus groups, tweets, or other ways, and acts on what they say about enhancing a business product or service, or developing new ones. However, as Chris Rockwell recently observed, asserting that people can't tell you what they want is a design research myth. People can communicate what they mean by their words or actions when researchers assist them in developing an awareness of their current experiences.

Communicating awareness of an experience requires more than people answering questions posed by a design researcher. A person's awareness of any experience is enhanced through activities related, directly or indirectly, to that experience. There are a range of techniques used to manage this challenge across the occupations that represent one or more specialties in experience design. To name just a few,

  • Design researchers who use ethnography to develop insights into users/customers implicitly agree that people engage in daily routines without explicitly thinking about why they do things the way they do them. The ethnographer's challenge is to develop an understanding of those, often tacit, goals and meanings.
  • Usability specialists often use tests that employ "think out loud" verbal protocols to get at the tacit knowledge users apply as they perform tasks with new systems or artifacts.
  • Information architects sometimes ask people to think out loud while they do card sorting to help the IA design information taxonomies and navigation for websites. Card sorting as a technique for building taxonomies gained initial recognition as a useful design technique by researchers doing knowledge acquisition for expert systems in the late 1980s.
  • Game developers find it useful to watch what gamers do in order to more effectively design the flow of the game. For example, Hanford Lemoore recently advised designers, Don't do what your users say... Hanford offers the following insight:

    Community is big these days. You’ll hear lots of designers tell you that it’s important to build a strong community and listen to them, because they are your core users. And I agree with that.

    But in UI design it’s important to understand that what a user says and what a user is telling you can be two different things. It is rare that a user outright lies for no reason. There is almost always a root cause for what your users are saying. The trick is to find that root issue to truly get what the user is telling you. And it is often a bit different than what their words are saying.

    Hanford's point about the limitations of taking what users/customers say in communities as an indication of what they are telling you points to a significant challenge in how to understand the meaning of information shared by members of customer communities, and develop that information into actionable insights for experience design in products and services communicating a brand.

    Workable Wondering

    The main reason for doing research in experience design is to learn how to create or improve products and services that people want to buy or engage, thereby enhancing the client's brand. The Zaltmans use a research strategy they call workable wondering, a strategy for gaining deep insights about people. Workable wondering depends on explicitly recognizing the importance of metaphorical understanding to the design research process. It means exploring beyond what customers say and do to learn "from their perspective why and how they think and do what they do" (Marketing Metaphoria, p. 11).

    Learning to listen to the metaphors customers use to describe a product, or a brand, provides a basic technique for implementing workable wondering. The Zaltmans contend three levels exist for metaphorical expression: surface, thematic, and deep. They point to the fact that everyday, mundane conversation is replete with metaphors. In the interest of accuracy it is also important to note that their approach to metaphor includes a range of figures of speech, i.e. tropes.

    Without reviewing the differences among tropes, the Zaltmans distinguish between surface level metaphor, such as "I am drowning in debt", and metaphorical thinking at the thematic level, such as "Money is like water", and further to thinking at the deep metaphorical level linked to the emotions that the other levels use to support the pattern of thought involved. Consider an example that the Zaltmans do not discuss, the Liberty Mutual series of commercials, in which one person sees another person do a good turn for a third person, could be summed up at the surface level in the idioms, "What goes around comes around" or "One good turn deserves another." At the thematic level the same series of commercials could be summed up as, "A good turn is like a gift." Both metaphorical understandings draw from the insight that social relationships depend on a balance of giving and receiving, at times between strangers doing the right thing.

    Experience design techniques involving survey research can provide insights related to surface level and, in many cases, thematic metaphorical insights. However, understanding the emotional bases of the consumer experience involves developing deeper awareness of the meaningfulness of a brand to those people.

    Deep Metaphors

    The Zaltmans make a convincing case that an individual's brain activity is shaped by, and shapes, what other brains do. In other words, they use recent findings in neuroscience to contend that the activity of our brains is shaped by the problems we face in our lives and the manner in which we solve them. As a result, very different people addressing similar problems exhibit similarities in brain activity and use the same deep metaphors. The Zaltmans use the Zaltman Metaphor Eliticitation Technique (ZMET) to uncover those deep metaphors using a range of resources. Among other resources, ZMET uses photography. For example, a week before a research project begins participants are asked to gather pictures that express the way they feel about the topic of the design process. The pictures cannot include any products related to the brand, or other products in the same consumer category. During in-depth interviews the participants respond to probing questions about their feelings about the topic, i.e. product, service, brand.

    Based on their use of ZMET in 12,000 in-depth interviews around the globe, the Zaltmans contend that only around seven deep metaphors exist in human culture, though they do note that blends between them occur. The deep metaphors they consider universal are:

    • balance
    • transformation
    • journey
    • container
    • connection
    • resource
    • control

    Workable wondering uses ZMET as a means for understanding the emotions that make consumers' engagement with a brand meaningful to them.

    ...once marketers understand the anatomy of these emotions, they can learn how to engage the emotions using metaphoric cues in product design, shopping environments, and other communications. While metaphors are central to identifying emotions, measures of metaphor properties are not to be confused with measures of emotions. Managers must understand deep metaphors to avoid miscommunications. In fact, what marketers say is often not what consumers hear. Deep metaphors account for the difference.

    In other words, the say-mean gap works both ways between users/customers/consumers and experience designers, marketers, and managers. Understanding which deep metaphors apply to the perception of a brand or product is a useful technique for managing miscommunication with users/customers/consumers in the design research process, while recognizing that "different consumers can experience the same deep metaphors differently in different circumstances."

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