A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at the MAC about endurance cycling. It was during the time of Giro Belfast, and as an endurance cyclist I felt honoured to be asked. Not for the first time however, I’d pondered the drive that kept me on the bike nine hours straight. Mile after mile, past the relentless pain of the last twenty or sometimes thirty miles. Yet, even in those days that I couldn't straighten my knees as I dismounted, instead of dreading the next day, I was always up and on the road by 5 /6am longing to do it all again. Could this behaviour be explained by an insane love for the bike? At one time I thought so, but as I also know well, things are rarely that simple. I’d go so far as to say never.
When I was asked to give the talk, it had been a couple of years since I’d hung up the endurance bike. Or folded it into the shape of a coffee table to keep the memories alive. Fairly immediately after, I'd dived into writing, attempting to pen rough drafts and unravel the joy of cycling, but it wasn’t until I revisited them for the talk that it dawned upon me. The cycling hadn’t just been about the bike, it represented much more, essentially, freedom. In my late childhood / early teens, the open road offered space away from the family, from juggling everyone’s needs, and relinquishing my own. Cycling - the act of removing myself from the family - resulted in the pairing of the bike with freedom, assigning it a value on a deeply personal level. This imprint was so strong that it had kept me cycling further and further until I reached my target of 150 miles per day, which was as far away as my body could go..
Konrad Lorenz was one the first to recognise that the pairing of experience with emotion conditions our thinking, and essentially shapes our future actions. He used the term ‘imprint’. Think of a small child who puts his/her hand on a hot stove, the imprint of the burning sensation means he/she doesn’t do it again. As we move through life we forget all about these ‘imprints’, we forget the memories and instead when we are asked a question, instead of replying with an understanding of what happened, we give the most logical answer we can provide in that moment. An answer that bears no resemblance on what we actually really think or feel, let alone the meaning we have attached / assigned to it those years ago that's still shaping our actions. Asking customers therefore what they think is sometimes is no more than receiving a logical reply, the best one answer can deliver in that moment under pressure. But if you really want to understand what your customers do think, it’s about going deeper, unraveling understanding through emotional tools like cultural probes that allows someone to think, to unpack and get to the heart of the meaning behind their choices.