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Lightbox Loves: AI and Empathy - Does it Compute?

Oil and water, toothpaste and orange juice, humanity and technology, empathy and business growth. Easy right? Things that don’t mix. Okay maybe the first two… but the second two? Many market researchers would beg to differ.

The qualitative research industry was historically built on in-person, face-to-face methods of data collection, a long and arduous process. But in recent years qualitative research has been able to add a great deal of technological solutions to its arsenal. The speed of development and increased accessibility of technology has facilitated this with. As such the rise of tools such as mobile ethnography, VR and AI, have been gleefully taken into the stride of researchers across the industry.

However, some believe that the empathy in face-to-face interaction (which remains the most powerful way to gain meaningful insights key to unlocking business growth), is lost through the intervention of technology. AI poses a particular challenge to this, due its infamous inability to understand context and subtext as well as the nuance in language and the way humans formulate responses. Whilst much of what people say is explicit, still, large parts of our communication is expressed implicitly, particularly when we consider communication around difficult subjects like private personal problems or more complex societal issues like issues of race and class.

Joyshree Reinelt of Innate Motion describes it like this, “We need to open up the soul, and embrace vulnerability. Empathy is something that’s needed more than ever in the current stressful environment many consumers find themselves living in – something AI isn’t about to deliver.”

Market research at its core is people focussed, and that rings true more now than ever before. Technology that merely enhances the empathetic interaction between researcher and participant, and by extension, brands and their consumers, will be key as we navigate these turbulent times.

Because when technology is the method of communication instead of the medium, empathy and its ability to drive growth is lost. That being said, the benefit that technological advancements have made to be able to access a broader and higher volume of people can’t be underestimated. This has meant greater understanding of people, which is the ultimate goal. So the role of technology in qualitative research at this moment in time is perhaps not in understanding the complexity of human feelings but in being an enabler to allow researchers to better understand people.