Written on August 20, 2013 by Tom

It’s the holiday season again, or at least it was. This year we took off early for our family holiday. It felt great at the time but now we’re back there’s that slight nag that the summer’s gone and you’re counting the days until Christmas. Ah well, there’s always the cricket.

We had a great time, two minutes from the lake, five minutes from the beach and all of 20 seconds from the on-site pool. What’s not to like? Certainly there was little else on the kids’ minds as they splashed around three times a day for a week. Naturally we adults had a bit more on our wish list but the cabin was clean and pretty well equipped and the roof didn’t leak during the thunderstorm. So far so good.

But you wouldn’t believe it from some of the reviews: “the bungalows are dark and have very little storage space”. What, for a towel and a spare t-shirt? “The accommodation is equipped with aging and worn bedding”. Seemed ok to me, not sure I noticed. “Very basic kitchenette”. Who wants to cook? And even “pas de WIFI dans l’appartement”. Well I didn’t take my laptop and je regrette rien about that.

The recent story about the hotly tipped, but sadly non-existent, restaurant reviewed on tripadvisor reminds us to have a pinch or two of salt close at hand when reviewing review sites. We’ve all seen suspiciously positive reports: presumably people bigging up their own sites with false claims. Similarly there’s little to stop others spiking their competitors’ sites with spiteful and untrue comments. Added to that, genuine reviewers have different standards, different expectations, people’s prior experience – less about truth than what’s important to each individual.

For us researchers, of course, this is fascinating because we spend our time wrestling with verification, validation and balancing conflicting points of view. We don’t just have to untangle the truths from the lies, the false data from the genuine. The harder job is untangling all the different truths we hear in the course of a research project, a single focus group, and sometimes during an interview where the participant contradicts himself.

Asking people’s opinions, drawing them all together and then translating all that conflicting data into something that a client can take action on – well if it was easy you wouldn’t pay highly skilled and talented researchers to do it. It’s about balancing up the weight of opinion, recognising that conflicting views can coexist and be equally valid, nuance, and sometimes compromise.

All this balance is hard to put into a report when you want to provide a clean and clear set of recommendations. It can sound like a fudge but the real fudge is pretending it’s one thing and not the other when it’s quite possible to be both. We tackle this by presenting the arguments as clearly as we can, by linking people’s views to what sits behind those views, and by making clear recommendations so that the course of action is clear, even if the water is a bit muddy.

And the blankets? Well they probably were ten years old, but to me it mattered no more than the roof tiles being a slightly faded shade of terracotta. Bonnes vacances tout le monde.

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