Predicting the unpredictable: top tips for researching a shrinking future

Nov 3, 2021 |2 min read
predicting the future

As we emerge from the pandemic, our clients are looking to us to identify how people are really feeling and how they, as organisations, can adapt and plan amid this unknown landscape. So, the big question is: how can we conduct research now that remains relevant and consult clients on the future during unpredictable times?

To help answer this, we’ll be reflecting on four key principles that we have used at 2CV to get a better grasp on what the future holds:

  1. Understand human needs first
  2. Shrink the future
  3. Run longitudinal qualitative research
  4. Future proof


Understand human needs first

As researchers, we know that there are universal values and emotions that ring true no matter what. While they may dial up or down at different points of people’s lives, basic human needs that people care about like health, safety, job stability, having a home and spending time with friends/family, will always prevail. This is why we focus on understanding these human needs first.

There are also certain occasions and calendar dates — Christmas being the prime example for those who celebrate it — that mark the year in a way that, when taken away, can be hugely disorientating. Towards the end of 2020, we conducted a piece of research for a major charity exploring the future of the festive period as part of their ongoing Christmas engagement strategy. Of course, Christmas at that point had a massive question mark over it – What would it look like? Where will I be? Who with? Could the government really ‘cancel’ Christmas? And yet, what shone through during the research was 1) the ability of people to adapt during the restrictions and 2) subconsciously allow their values to dictate how they would be spending the festive period. Togetherness, for example, was one of the key elements of Christmas which, even if virtual, had to stay.


Shrink the future

Even pre-pandemic, the world felt like it was moving quickly and a 10-year plus future had already begun to feel more abstract — a mindset that the pandemic has only solidified. As a result, organisations are faced with the challenge of planning for and predicting the future, despite their customers and users struggling to imagine what this looks like or what they might want.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have been working with clients to understand the needs of customers during a time of change – what core needs persist? What are people’s expectations of businesses and public institutions when each day (let alone the future) is unsettled? These are questions that clients in sectors as diverse as transport, beauty, the arts, charity and tech have been asking us to help predict. In much of our work, it became apparent that customers had headspace for talking about the now but struggled to look further ahead and imagine how things could ‘be better’. We have seen that mindset shift as hope and desire for what lies ahead grows but feelings of uncertainty remain, and participants often still focus on the short-term and how things will look better this year and next? What are brands and organisations doing to inspire trust in the new now? Methodologically, this means rather than ask participants to share feedback on longer-term innovations, we have re-framed how we present the future to participants — shrinking it to a more tangible ‘present future’ and helping clients focus on what matters to customers now.


Run longitudinal qualitative research

Another way we can anticipate elements of the future is by regularly capturing feelings, attitudes and behaviour through waves of longitudinal qualitative research. The benefit is the ability to take stock of where people are at different points in time, and to analyse similarities and differences over the whole research period. We can then use this to predict how people are likely to react or feel in the short-term and beyond, or how they may feel in similar contexts in the future.

Conducting research with the same group of participants at different or specific points of time — especially in times of flux (like multiple lockdowns) — provides us with a steady stream of insight and brings us closer to customers. Understanding customer experiences of change and how people cope with flux also allows us to see how rapidly attitudes and behaviour can shift. This has proved invaluable to research during the pandemic — especially across sectors like transport and beauty, where behaviour is so habitual — shedding light on how the pandemic has, and hasn’t, impacted daily life and how different people respond to uncertainty and change.


Future proof

The past 18 months has shown us the power of research during volatile periods. Though the idea of ‘the future’ has rapidly changed, and may be harder than ever to predict, we have been positively stretched as researchers to develop new methods and techniques that have fundamentally captured how people have felt, and behaved, in that moment and help ‘shrink’ the future for them to make it seem that little bit more tangible. For us, at 2CV, agility and adaptability has remained key to our approach and has enabled us to help ‘predict’ the future for clients as best we can.