Marketers still debate the merit of an often-misinterpreted statement attributed to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. It’s about the inability of traditional market research methods (i.e. focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, panels, etc.) to predict which product innovations Apple should create next. The last sentence in this Jobs quote (italics mine) is frequently omitted, but it’s key:
People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.
– Steve Jobs, (then) Apple CEO
This last sentence reminds us that the “weak signals” of insight for transformational innovation won’t typically be found in the transcripts of directed focus group conversations or the data charts from consumer surveys. The signals are much more likely be discovered through the observational methods of anthropological outlier research, the projective techniques of sociological visual research, the empathy-building exercises of ethnographic field work, the illuminative storytelling of writers and filmmakers, and so forth. Today, Apple continues to employ artists, anthropologists, writers, ethnographers, designers, sociologists and other workers with liberal arts and social sciences backgrounds to help uncover early indicators of the emotional, aesthetic, and cultural drivers underpinning evolving mindsets and behaviors. These are glimpses into what might be “next.”
During times of great change (like a pandemic!), qualitative (and mixed methods) researchers who are able to help a study’s participants share meaningful and evocative fragments of their lives — and help these participants communicate (often tacitly-held) fears, hopes, beliefs and knowledge — can begin to “read things that are not yet on the page.” In other words, these researchers are able (often through abductive techniques, extreme sampling, and iterative inquiry) to notice emerging shifts, even before the participants themselves have noticed these changes.
Here’s an example of a traditional research inquiry into travel forecasts following a significant global event. Professor Janet Bednarek, in her article “Airlines got travelers comfortable about flying again once before — but 9/11 and a virus are a lot different,” shares that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a poll taken immediately after indicated that “more than 40% of Americans said they were less willing to fly.” However, after additional security measures were put in place and a few years had passed, “Americans again were flying in record numbers.” Dr. Bednarek wonders if the pandemic “mishmash of policies and procedures” related to USA air travel safety will result in a slower recovery for the industry than after 9/11. Indeed, early COVID-19 pandemic surveys indicated only 16% of Americans would travel aboard a commercial airliner on the first day after air travel was deemed “safe” and all health warnings were removed. Will the survey data predict actual air travel behavior this time?
Now, let’s explore a qualitative research resource related to pandemic air travel. American writer and professor Sarah Ruffing Robbins curated poetry that paints a picture of the transformative power of travel, and told evocative stories about the universal need for human connection and the power of a beloved place. In her April 2020 blog article, Flying During Covid-19: Planes, Poems, and Virtual Journeys, the author shares — even during the early, most frightening days of the pandemic — her hopes of traveling to meet up with her family and friends again soon. She begins her article with an excerpt from a 1926 poem about a young girl travelling:
If once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name,
You may bustle about in street and shop;
You may sit at home and sew,
But you’ll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.
– From the poem, by Rachel Field, “If Once You Have Slept on an Island,” as shared by Sarah Ruffing Robbins
The author describes the solace found in the “verbal portraits of journeys”; she shares lasting memories of family trips; and she explains that poems give her “roadmaps for journeys beyond the often-isolating sadness of our now-so-constrained spaces.” Ruffing Robbins ends her article with the following:
I’m trying my best to use the language of literature, not only for reminiscing about my own past travels, but also to look ahead, to cultivate hope. Our family still aims to assemble on St. John someday, hopefully in a time not too far off, for a postponed version of the celebration we had planned for March 2020. We’ll be honoring multiple decades of marriage, reveling in our multi-generational family tree, sharing our love for that place we’ve been to on numerous trips in the past.
– Sarah Ruffing Robbins, April 2020
So, where might we find useful insight about “what’s next” for travel? If I were Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, trying to gain glimpses into the future of travel, I would certainly need to be informed of the latest booking statistics from the Airbnb travel platform and airlines to make short-term adjustments in company business operations. However, this type of early quantitative data lead Chesky to proclaim in June 2020, “Travel as we knew it is over.” For me, before prognosticating about where the future of travel is going, I would also want to explore and assemble qualitative insights about what might change and what might remain the same for travel. Perusing blogs, social media, and Google Image/YouTube/TikTok searches for family meals, socially-distant neighborhood gatherings, small celebrations, travel memories, and virtual dinner parties with friends during the pandemic would evoke powerful emotions and signals about emerging priorities. Observing and listening to outlier people who are finding ways to safely travel to Airbnb properties during the pandemic would be another great source of insight about the human drive to connect. In fact, by September 2020, Chesky (a designer trained at the Rhode Island School of Design) had a “more nuanced” view and predicted that the future of travel can’t all be “captured by sheer numbers.” He and his team began noticing that, amid the collapse of most business travel, the emotionally-driven human connections with family and friends (as evoked by author Sarah Ruffing Robbins) were already making an appearance:
“The kinds of connections we’re seeing are people using Airbnb to reconnect with those they already know and love,” he explains, pointing to family getaways and reunions with friends around a large kitchen table. “We are at — possibly — the loneliest time in human history.” There may not be much he can do about it right now, or for the foreseeable future. “Eventually, there will be a yearning to meet new people once again, and when it’s safe to do so, we’ll be there at the ready.”
– Brian Chesky, September 2020
In a recent announcement, Airbnb’s Chesky revealed a partnership with Apple’s former Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, and his new company, LoveFrom, to “design the next generation of Airbnb products and services.” Ive’s new company is a “collection of creatives that include designers, architects, musicians, writers, engineers, and artists.”
AN INVITATION TO CONTRIBUTE TO OUR LIMINALITY STUDY
As part of the Grey Swan Guild’s sensemaking initiatives, I’ve joined hearts and minds with a small group of like-minded Guild collaborators and we’re exploring the Liminality of the changing world during this pandemic. We’re still refining our study’s methodological approach, but we know we’ll be incorporating a blend of qualitative and quantitative secondary research resources, as well as qualitative primary research methods. Do you have stories and images to share with us? We invite you to contribute your personal stories, photos, images, etc. to our study.
I’ve also written a personal piece, When Words Fail — the Power of Imagery During a Pandemic, following my own journey of meaning making in the early days of COVID-19 in Canada.
JOIN THE GUILD & PARTICIPATE
If you’re interested in joining the Grey Swan Guild, there are many ways to participate. Hop over to our website, become a Guild member, take a look at our publications, contribute some of your personal words and images in a range of formats, and join our global volunteer group in our attempt to help make sense of this changing world.
Dr. Sharon McIntyre is a researcher, educator, entrepreneur and consultant. She works at the intersection of innovation, values and creative culture — with a focus on technology-enabled entrepreneurship and product commercialization. She leads New Cottage Industries & Co., an education company focused on building practical creativity skills and everyday innovation capacity with their clients. She’s also the Chief Social Scientist for Chaordix, a pioneer in crowdsourced innovation communities. Sharon is a founding member of the Grey Swan Guild and is keen to see what emerges from the second wave of research by our global group of volunteers. You can find her walking her dog and renovating a house in the village of Saanichton, a satellite community of Victoria, BC on Canada’s west coast. Find Sharon online as @ shazzmack.