fresh ideas

Using Research to Find Out What You Need to Know

The moment you think you know it all is the exact moment you need to stop and take stock. Quality, affordable research can make the difference on a new product, rebranding exercise, website home page or ad campaign.

The moment you think you know it all is the exact moment you need to stop and take stock. Quality, affordable research can make the difference on a new product, rebranding exercise, website home page or ad campaign.

The moment you think you know it all is exactly the moment when you need to stop and take stock. Hubris can turn on a dime into expensive mistakes.

Market research and timely public opinion polling is often dismissed on grounds that “we already know the answer to our questions.” That may be true, but it could be a disaster for a business plan, communications strategy or a school bond campaign if it isn’t true.

Frequently hubris is cloaked as a budgetary concern. “We can’t afford conducting any research right now.” Experience shows that many businesses, nonprofits and public agencies can’t afford not to conduct research.

Cockiness can be the cousin of recklessness. Most executives wouldn’t think of making a major decision without legal or financial counsel. So why would they risk the fate of a new product, the design of a website landing page or the effectiveness of an expensive ad buy based on a hunch or a gut feeling?

Research can be overlooked because of unfamiliarity with all its different forms. Many people think of research as only telephone polls or focus groups. Those are common types of research, but there are many other options that may fit better with a project and a budget.

One-on-one interviews is a cost-effective way to gather reliable information. These interviews won’t produce pie-chart results, but they will generate useful perspective and context. Say an executive is ready to launch a new initiative. One-on-one interviews can test whether his top lieutenants are on board or have lingering concerns. A nonprofit is considering a name change. One-on-one interviews can help ascertain how much brand equity resides in the current name and the aspirations for a new name.

For consumer-facing businesses, follow-up online surveys can gauge customer satisfaction and identify problems with products, personnel or shipping.

Roundtable discussions, whether in lunchrooms or at community centers, are an underutilized form of research. You might think of these as informal focus groups where you can collect information directly from participants and view group interaction. Both can provide insight, either by reaffirming what you thought, countering your assumptions or uncovering something you never thought of before.

An old-fashioned idea, which remains relevant, is to walk around and talk to people. Ask employees what they would improve. Ask customers whether you are meeting their expectations. Ask vendors how you could do business better and more profitably.

Research professionals are valuable resources who can give advice on the type of research that matches what you need and what you have to spend. They also can assist on what questions you ask and how they are framed to avoid biasing answers and skewing results.

One final thought. Third-party research, whether in the form of surveys or interviews, can yield more candid responses, especially if the topics explored relate to bosses and their plans.

The fundamental value proposition for quality research is what helps you find out what you need to know, not just what you want to hear.

 

Traffic Congestion Should Drive Transportation Innovation

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

Mayor Charlie Hales says Portland should be viewed as a major American city, and the worsening level of congestion here proves his point. Portland ranks ninth among the most traffic-jammed cities in America, trailing Washington, D.C., but worse than Chicago.

The good news about growing congestion: the situation is getting bad enough that motorists, planners and politicians are demanding fresh ideas and better answers. 

First the bad news. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, North American traffic congestion has jumped 17 percent since 2008 compared to a 13 percent global increase. Congestion declines in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, may be due to weaker economic performance.

A more recent survey by INRIX that was reported in the Portland Tribune pinpointed several Portland-area corridors as among the most congested in the country. No surprise to regular Portland-area commuters and truckers, they include potions of Highway 26, Highway 217, I-5, I-84 and I-205. 

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

“Urbanization continues to drive increased congestion in major cities worldwide,” the INRIX survey said. “Strong economies, population growth, higher employment rates and declining gas prices have resulted in more drivers on the road and more time wasted in traffic."

The Portland Tribune cited a report by the Value of Jobs Coalition that projects worsening congestion could cost the Oregon economy $1 billion by 2040, with most of that price tag in the Portland area.

At a personal level, slower commutes can eat up between 50 and 60 hours per driver a year. Slow-motion traffic often becomes an invitation to check out phone messages or engage in other distracted driving activities, which can lead to accidents that slow down traffic even more. Or as one cynical Portland driver put it, “A fender bender can bring Portland traffic to a crashing halt.”

Now some good news. Los Angeles, which remains the most congested city in America, is attempting to diversify its transportation network with an expanded light rail network to take pressure off its overloaded freeways. Some of Portland’s highly congested corridors already have parallel light rail routes. Planners are now exploring a new light rail line extending from downtown Portland south to Tigard and Tualatin.

The challenge of light rail, street cars and buses is they are ensnared in congestion on surface roads the same as cars, trucks and bicycles. Fixed guideway transportation sometimes shrinks road space for cars.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

Many urban areas don’t have a lot of room – or political appetite – to expand roadways. That has caused some cities to consider other options. Seattle is replacing the aging, unsightly Alaskan Way Viaduct with a massive and expensive underground tunnel. If not for the expense – and complications of drilling long tunnels, Portland might consider ditching the Marquam Bridge and putting I-5 underground as it goes through downtown Portland.

Another line of thinking is to use the airspace above roadways. Chinese engineers have developed a modern-looking straddle bus that can roll down a roadway overtop cars without adding to congestion or taking up a lane of traffic. The bus, which resembles a moving bridge, runs on rails built flush with the road, not requiring sequestered road space. Unlike subways that require a lot of digging, the only infrastructure needed for the straddle bus are elevated stations.

A prototype of the Chinese straddle bus, which is electric powered, reaches speeds up to 40 mph and carries as many as 1,400 passengers, will be tested this summer after the idea has languished since it was first conceived as far back as 1969. 

With tempers flaring and commute times expanding, there has never been a better time to think differently about how we get around.