Competitive Fast Association Test: Slow—slow—quick-quick—slow


As any good dancer knows, the rhythm of a dance is critical to its performance. In the quickstep, the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow beat creates an energetic and flowing movement where dancers appear to barely touch the ground. The mix of fast and slow blends perfectly to produce an impressive performance.

But what does this have to do with market research? For me, the dance rhythm (particularly that of the quick step) reminds me how important it is to measure the right mix of human thinking. We know that a huge number of decisions are based on fast and implicit gut reactions and heuristics, but at the same time, we use our logical and more considered thinking to make good and considered choices too.

The problem then is knowing when it’s important to access and understand fast thinking, and when we should take more account of people’s more considered responses. How can we even know when we’re being more influenced by unconscious mental shortcuts, biases, and deep-seated beliefs, versus when we’re genuinely making sound and thought-through decisions?

I suspect it’s a little like the quick step. Sometimes we move quickly, sometimes we slow down. Each decision is a blend of different types of thinking, and so as researchers, I think it’s important to understand both

The question then turns to the how? Slow and rational thinking tends to be captured well through traditional questioning techniques. Standard rating and ranking questions tell us a lot about attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, and from this we can develop a good overview of the products and brands we assess in research.

The more implicit side of our thinking is a much knottier issue and one where we continue to develop tools and techniques which start to reflect these deeper-seated attitudes and beliefs. Indeed, at HRW we have self-funded several projects aimed at developing questioning techniques to do just this.

In our latest study, we tested a new competitive fast association test whereby respondents are under time pressure to select which brand is most closely associated with a series of brand characteristics. This approach is a departure from our existing fast test, where brands are assessed sequentially and so we were interested to understand what the comparative nature of the exercise would provide.

In addition, we used some traditional metrics in the research and the results were rather surprising. Our hypothesis was that the competitive fast test would allow us to tease out more of an emotional reaction to the brands we tested, and indeed, this was true to a degree, but the testing also revealed that the tried-and-tested attribute tick-box approach provided very similar results, with a high degree of discrimination in a category that we knew lacked clear brand differentiation.

Indeed, the traditional tick-box approach allowed us to better understand the results of the fast test and provided a clear reminder of the power of comparative methodologies, where we know that simply comparing two brands head-to-head instantly enables people to better access their judgmental process versus when thinking about a brand in isolation. Using this combination of fast and slow questioning it was clear that many brand attributes were true for both fast and considered thinking. These attributes are important – they are clear and intrinsic associations; universal truths about a brand which will be hard to shake.

Other important attributes also started to emerge in the analysis; more subtle associations, but secondary factors that were slightly more likely to be selected in the competitive fast test versus in the traditional question format. These attributes most likely represent the factors which can be built upon. Less firmly held views where an underlying emotional response already exists are ripe for exploiting – subtly turning up the dial in key areas to create greater brand differentiation.

Overall, this latest study provided us with much food for thought and the competitive fast test will be a new addition to our suite of fast testing methodologies – our existing fast test, fast open ends, and fast sorting tools. It won’t always be the right tool to use; choosing the right tool for the right business question is key and we think carefully about exactly when to apply each. The competitive fast test for example, will be most relevant when there are two key players in the market and in categories where brand differentiation is known to be limited.

So too will our traditional questions continue to be used, because it’s clear that the blend of fast and slow important in the quick step, is equally important when it comes to understanding customer behaviour.

By Nicola Vyas