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Why Is the Backward Research Method So Effective?

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Jul 27, 2017

Applied psychologists and marketers in particular conduct research to choose one action over another. Through their research, market researchers want to answer questions such as:

"What price should we charge for the product? Which customer segments should we target? and Which advertisement will consumers find most appealing?"

Similarly, educational researchers have questions regarding the effectiveness of a particular instruction method, and organizational psychologists may want to study how different incentive structures affect the performance of employees. For such applied research, the main criterion of success lies in actionability – how well findings from the research can be used to make a decision on how to act.

This goal is different from academic psychological research which generates basic knowledge, or deeper understanding regarding a particular phenomenon, without consideration of the finding’s actionability or solving particular problems.

In this post, my focus is on applied research. I want to discuss how the traditional applied research process works, and why it often fails to produce actionable results. The backward research method, developed by Professor Alan Andreasen, turns the traditional research process on its head, solving its main weaknesses and forcing the decision maker and researcher to think about what specific results will be obtained and how they will be used in the beginning. Because of this up-front work requiring deliberation, more reliable, actionable outcomes are ultimately obtained. So far, it has been used mainly by market researchers, but any applied psychological researcher will benefit from designing research the “backward” way.

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How the Traditional Applied Research Process Works

Applied research is done because someone encounters a problem. A bank manager may notice that the rate of new customers joining a branch has slowed markedly, and is far lower than predicted at the beginning of the year. She wants to know what’s going on, and how to fix this problem. So she hires a market researcher and explains the problem. After an initial consultation, the researcher makes a list of possible causes (e.g., customers are unhappy with the service at the branch, employees are slacking off because they are disgruntled with low wages, long hours, etc.), and then designs studies to investigate which of these causes is responsible for the slowing sales.

Interviews and surveys are conducted with customers first, followed by employees. The data from these studies is analyzed, the results are compiled carefully, and a glossy report is produced and delivered to the manager. The report states that some customers are delighted with the bank’s service, a few are unhappy, but most are indifferent. The employees, too, have mixed opinions.  In the end, the report tells the manager mostly what she already knew, and fails to provide her with a solution to her “slowing sales” problem. What is more, such research is expensive. I have seen tens of thousands of dollars spent on market research projects in this way, without achieving any actionable outcome.

Why did this happen? It happened because the researcher and the manager did not spend enough time or effort in the beginning fleshing out the core issues and thinking about potential solutions, what is and is not on the table.

How the Backward Research Method Works

The backward research method was first described in a 1985 Harvard Business Review article by marketing professor Alan Andreasen. In my view, this is one of the most powerful and useful articles that any applied psychological researcher can read, and I strongly recommend. Here’s how the method works.

Unlike the traditional process, the backward research method begins with the manager and the researcher spending a significant amount of time discussing how the manager will use the research findings and in deciding what the final report will look like, even going so far as to map out the empty tables and the skeletons of the graphs and charts that will appear in the final report.

This may sound like going too far. But it really works because it forces the manager (or the decision maker commissioning the research) to think deeply about actionable solutions to the problem, and to carefully consider what actions she is, and is not, willing to take. For instance, to deal with sluggish new account openings at the bank, the manager may be willing to offer gifts to current customers for referrals. She may also be willing to run a sales promotion offering a better interest rate on new accounts, but only if competitors are doing this. But she may not be willing to advertise in local media, or to change employee pay-scales or work schedules. Once these constraints are understood, the market researcher can focus on designing research to study receptiveness of potential customers and current customers to incentives like better interest rates and gifts. And he can drop the ideas of conducting a study with employees or consider the effects of a radio commercial.

Thinking through what the final report will contain and look like also allows the manager to link the research results to the decision directly, with questions like: What percentage of current customers have to say they are interested in a referral program for her to go ahead with it? What types of incentives are the most preferred? Which customer segments (e.g., over age 55, suburban) will be more willing to provide referrals and should be targeted?

From An Exploratory Fishing Expedition to Focused Problem Solving

Consider these and other such issues up-front forces the manager to make hard choices about the scope of the research, and the translation of quantitative values from the research into making particular decisions. After the first two steps of the backward research method (determining how the results will be used, and what the final report will look like), the rest of the process unfolds just like the traditional process, but more smoothly and with greater certainty in usefulness of ultimate outcomes.

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The backward research method requires a lot of effort and initial discussion up among those who will make decisions or act, and those who will design and conduct the research before any research has taken place. From a kick-off meeting that took an hour or less, the backward research may require ten hours or more of intense collaboration in the very beginning. But the pay-off will be huge.  Having used this method dozens of times when working on applied market research projects with companies and non-profit organizations, I can attest to its effectiveness. It has worked for me every single time, leaving my clients completely satisfied and in possession of an actionable outcome. If carried out properly, every applied research psychological project will be certain to lead to the decision or action it was designed for.

About the Author

Utpal Dholakia

Utpal Dholakia

Rice University

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has a master's degree in psychology, and a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Michigan, a master's degree in operations research from the Ohio State University, and a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Bombay.

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