Phil Back Associates      

Research that counts              


Over the years I've acquired a reputation for innovation in research - and have several times been recognised for this in good practice guides and the like.

I don't do innovation for its own sake - there are reasons why some methods are tried and tested - but there are increasing numbers of research needs where innovation is essential if we're to get beyond the usual respondents and reach those who don't participate using traditional approaches. Innovation can also open up new possibilities for getting the message across to those making decisions.

Some examples (and they are only examples) of innovation in my work include:

Video and audio recording of the customer experience

Mystery shopping is nothing new, of course, although its use in the public sector is still quite limited. Using covert video and audio recording to capture the experience as it actually happened, rather than just relying on a shopper assessment form, means that you get a much livelier and informative view of what it's like to be a customer. I won an award for this approach with Braintree District Council; Colchester used it to transform their approach to customer service.

Day-long mystery shopping programme

The client needed to know how well a local seaside resort catered for young people as visitors. We took a group of teenagers from another town, by minibus, for a planned day visit in which they enjoyed local visitor attractions including the leisure centre, swimming pool, shopping and so on, and also visited incidental facilities such as toilets, the library, tourist information and so on. At the end of the day they reported back in a feedback session to us and local ward members about their experience, highlighting both plusses and minuses from the day.

Letting teenagers set the agenda

Getting engagement from teenagers can be a big challenge; often the problem is that what we want to explore with them isn't what they want to talk to us about. In my work with Thurrock Council (cited as an example of good practice by CABE Space, and since replicated elsewhere very successfully) we wanted to find out what teenagers needed and wanted from open spaces. We gave the kids disposable cameras and asked them to photograph things they wanted to talk to us about in the area of open spaces - with very productive results that confirmed some of our thinking but surprised us in other ways. Thurrock used this material to underpin its PPG17 study.

The recycling game

The trouble with researching recycling is that people know what the right answers are, even if they don't do that in practice. As a result, research tends to produce quite theoretical and aspirational results that have limited practical value. The Recycling Game gets over this by inviting participants to indicate what they do, and what they'd want to do, with different types of waste. It encourages honesty and reality and demonstrates what people actually do with their waste, as well as their awareness of alternative disposal options for different types of waste.

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