We live in a risk-averse world. As time rolls belligerently onwards, less and less of the things we do and the decisions we make are risky. Playgrounds are safer; we have health insurance and smoke alarms.
This is mostly good news – where we sacrifice nothing, reducing risk is common sense. For example, few would argue that the addition of airbags and crumple zones to our cars has been a bad thing.
But risk has benefits, too. Doesn’t dating lose a frisson of excitement if we have found out everything there is to know about our date online beforehand? Would skydiving hold the same appeal if the sport wasn’t inherently dangerous? From marriage proposals to angel investments, the riskiest decisions are often the the most lucrative. They are also often the ones that change the world.
Over the years, companies have spent more and more money on market research, the so-called science of probing the hopes and dreams of the consumer through polling, panelling and psychological profiling. Their objective is the reduction of risk.
No doubt, the techniques have become more subtle over the years, but the success of market research – or ‘consumer insight’, as it is now more sexily known – is at best sporadic. A quote attributed probably apocryphally to Henry Ford illustrates the problem:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
The point is this: consumer behaviour tomorrow cannot necessarily be inferred from consumer behaviour today, because people don’t know what they want.
Roger Mavity, CEO, Conran
At Conran, we think there are serious limits to what market research can do. In fact, to designers, market research present its own kind of risk, because the work of a committee seldom has the spark of the work of an individual. The product that is rigorously research-tested may well end up inoffensive to everyone, and brilliant to none.
Our CEO, Roger Mavity, spoke on this very topic at the Cheltenham Design Festival last month. Taking to the stage with Stephen Bayley, co-author of his bestselling book Life’s a Pitch, Roger gave a passionate defence of risk.
As John Steinbeck put it, “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world”.