The American experience

Our research trip to the USA, investigating new markets.
As the taxi pulls out of JFK’s arrivals zone onto a packed freeway, sleet and rain fill the early evening sky, and the famous Manhattan skyline is hidden in a bank of cloud. Our taxi driver half turns in his seat; “So what kind of research are you guys doing?” It’s to do with snacking habits in the US, we tell him. “Snacking?” He exclaims, “Man! -have you guys come to the right place…”. 

It’s January, and we’re conducting a joint international research project with our client on the subject of snacking habits and behaviour on the US East coast. I’m joined in the cab by my colleague from Munich, and later at the hotel, we will meet with another member of the team from our client partner; the home appliance manufacturer, BSH. Together, the three of us will visit the homes of 11 ordinary Americans in urban and suburban areas, to better understand how new technologies might fit into their snacking habits.

The next morning, the weather has improved, and we’re all squeezed into the small Harlem apartment of New York native, Monica*. We sit cross-legged on the carpet while the sun streams through the window.  Although initially nervous, Monica soon begins to relax as we introduce ourselves, and chat about her travels in South-East Asia and the many new foods that she tried there. And within five minutes, she is happily showing us the contents of her fridge while recommending the best place to get a genuine New York pan-pizza. 

Being British, rather than American, seems to help rather than hinder the interviews, with the people we meet eager to introduce the quintessential American snacks to these strangers from overseas.

Our approach to qualitative research at IXDS is, whenever possible, to speak to people within their own environment. Not only does this help to keep everything relaxed, but we get to see the context in which they live their lives, and all the things in their environment that affect the person they are. A Manhattan flat differs greatly to one in the centre of Munich.

As the interview continues we get more and more into the specifics of Monica’s snacking habits using a number of tools we brought with us to stimulate ideas and anecdotes, and as we say our goodbyes, it’s apparent that closely working with the US-based recruitment agency beforehand from Germany has paid off. It was a good interview.

Over the next few days we travel around New York and rural New Jersey, meeting a variety of colourful characters in their homes. As a native English speaker, I lead the interviews, asking questions, steering the conversation around connected topics, and deciphering the strong Brooklyn accents. Being British, rather than American, seems to help rather than hinder the interviews, with the people we meet eager to introduce the quintessential American snacks to these strangers from overseas. There’s a certain familiarity, yet one with fresh perspective

Close cooperation between IXDS and our clients is something we pride ourselves on, and that doesn’t mean just regular email exchange.  Our client partner is with us throughout the trip, and is able to observe the insights and the day to day challenges of the research, contributing key points and questions along the way. It is working relationship based upon joint development, not just a final delivery.

As the week progresses, our small team experiences our project’s topic first hand: Freshly baked deli bagels, smothered in cream cheese; Deep fried batons of stringy mozzarella; Flame grilled steakhouse burgers, barely holding together under the weight of their own toppings; and of course the ubiquitous gas station pizza. Immersion into the country’s snacking culture reveals even more than the interviews can, while the variety and personalisation of choice throws into focus the key differences between the North American and European markets.  

Snacking and food here in the US goes far beyond mere habits… it is a reflection of culture and lifestyle, and by fully immersing oneself into this lifestyle, you walk in the shoes of that person.

As I sit in the aisle seat of the Munich bound transatlantic flights, I reflect upon what the cab driver from the first day had said to us. We certainly had come to the right place.

Maybe when I get home, I’ll have a salad…

*not real name