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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Agatha Christie was a British novelist who wrote the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot whodunits in the 1930s and 1940s. This was the golden era of British murder mysteries, with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson the most memorable of all. Fascinated with murder mysteries, Anthony and Elva Pratt invented a board game they called Murder! The U.S. rights were sold to Parker Brothers, who gave it the name Americans know today.

Clue is an old-fashioned board game where players try to solve a murder mystery by determining who did the foul deed, where the crime took place, and what the murder weapon was

Every player is a suspect and all move around a game board that represents rooms in the murder victim’s mansion, collecting clues along the way and trying to be the first to solve the murder.

The names of the characters were chosen to match the colors of the tokens used by the players to mark their positions as they moved around the board

The three original female characters were Miss Scarlet, Mrs White, and Mrs Peacock. The male characters were Mr Green, Colonel Mustard, and Professor Plum. The victim was the owner of the mansion where the murder took place, Mr Boddy (get it?).

There were six original weapons: a candlestick, a knife, a lead pipe, a revolver, a rope, and a wrench.

The mansion had nine rooms: the Ballroom, Billiard room, Dining room, Lounge, Library, Study, Conservatory, Kitchen, and Hall. The Lounge, Study, Conservatory, and Kitchen each held a secret passageway.

Players roll a single die and move about the board in search of clues

The first to properly identify the killer, the weapon, and the room where the murder took place wins. This is typically done by using strategy, logic, and the process of elimination. The penalty for guessing wrong is immediate elimination from the game, so the winner is usually the player who carefully collects the necessary clues and correctly interprets them.

Quickly, off the top of your head, how many possible combinations of murderer, weapon and location are there?

Now multiply 6 suspects times 6 weapons times 9 rooms and you come up with 324 possible solutions, 323 of which are wrong.

People like it when I use simple language and common examples to describe how research gets done

When talking about sampling, I find the Clue game helps non-researchers understand why small samples with only a single characteristic almost never discover the answers companies are looking for.

Think about our 324 possible solutions

Each of them is made up of three separate components. In the game of Clue, they are the murderer, the weapon, and the room. Knowing only which weapon or room or person doesn’t get us to the answer and neither does only knowing two out of three. To solve the mystery, we need to figure out all three components of the solution.

In training sessions, we use the six murderers, six weapons and nine locations as stand-ins for things to consider when choosing the sample we will use for our investigation

In one popular workshop, the team’s goal is to conduct a study of Consumer Attitudes in Europe. Study after study show that age, income, and geographic location are three important variables, so let’s start with them.

Instead of six murderers, think of six different age categories:

If we only sample those 21-30 or those 51-60, or any single age bracket, we have eliminated five of six possibilities before we have even begun. If we sample three of the six age groups, we will still have eliminated half our possibilities. To solve the age portion of our problem, we need to sample some from each age group to have a fighting chance.

The same holds true for six weapons, which we will use as stand-ins for income brackets:

When we collect data from each of six income groups within each of six age groups, we have “solved” only 36 of 324 possible solutions, so let’s move on to our sample’s geographic composition.

Let’s think about the nine rooms as nine European countries

The continent has more than four dozen countries and we don’t have the time and money for all of them, so for illustrative purposes, let’s choose Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey as our “rooms.” These nine countries will do nicely for starters because they are well-dispersed across Europe and more than half of the continent’s population lives in them. The first letters of those countries also accidentally anagram nicely into Gift Spend, by the way, very handy for our study.

Sidebar: Choosing countries is just the start. Take England, for example. Many studies save money by going only London and insisting their conclusions apply to all of England. This is a typical corner-cutting strategy that makes the ridiculous assumption that London and England are the same thing. Anyone who tells you this is so is not to be trusted.

As London holds only about one-eighth of the population of England, we cannot draw reliable conclusions about the country without including in our sample the attitudes of people from the North East, North West, South East, South West, East Midlands, West Midlands, East, and Yorkshire regions, where seven out of eight English people live – you know, the other 60 million your competitors are ignoring.

Now we’re getting somewhere

To cover all the possibilities and not arbitrarily exclude any group from our study of Consumer Attitudes in Europe, we will need to sample each of 36 age and income groups within each of our nine countries. We will then be able to compare the attitudes of people in every age group in every income category across across nine different countries, 324 possible segments in all.

Companies that commission surveys like to see sophisticated statistics used to analyze the survey data they collect

Most don’t know surveys can only deliver meaningful analyses when each cell in the sample matrix contains a minimum of 40 cases each. Conclusions and inferences that are based on samples with fewer than 40 cases are known to numbers experts to be unstable, unreliable and untrustworthy because they violate the mathematical laws that are built into complex formulas. With a 40 case per cell minimum and 324 cells, we need to collect data from 12,960 respondents. Anything less and we’ve seriously handicapped our chances of solving our business problems.

To solve your marketing problems and to figure out what new products to bring to market, first determine which categories are important to investigate

You will find in almost every instance for every product and service, your research will need to effectively sample different age brackets, income brackets, and geographies. How well you do that is up to you. 

Those who don’t give enough thought to their study samples are wasting money, and worse than that, opportunity

Don’t be one of them.

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