Concepts are meaningless without context – so how do you understand what people really mean?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Whilst Romeo may have had a point in this context, the words people choose to define something do matter. Because people use the same words but mean different things. This happens even with simple concepts that you would assume everyone understands and uses in a similar way. Just take this example from a recent project we did.


When we first met Bob, he told us he was active and busy. Jane, on the other hand, described herself as lazy and chilled. Based on these self-descriptions, we assumed Bob was much more active than Jane. But when we took a closer look at what Bob and Jane got up to on a daily basis, we couldn’t have been further from the truth. One of the methodologies Decidedly is leading the way on is passive observation. We used passive observation in this project, setting up cameras in our respondent’s homes – with their permission of course! – to delve deeper into their lives. This enabled us to uncover real behaviours in real environments.

Bob’s so-called “active lifestyle” consisted of sitting on a sofa watching TV 14 hours a day and occasionally doing some exercises – albeit from the comfort of his chair. Chilled-out-Jane tended to be out of her house for a good part of the day. And when she was home, she barely sat still – whether it was tending to her kittens or doing yoga.

So, why do Bob and Jane have such polar opposite concepts of being active? Is Bob lying? Is Jane just being modest?


We also talked to Alice – an avid marathon runner and art museum volunteer – who described herself as busy and active. Alice’s description of herself was pretty on point. But how could the same words also be used by a man who watches TV 14 hours a day? Clearly, their concept of the words ‘busy’ and ‘active’ differ.

What we found was that people contextualise what they do & say based on their own lives and experiences. For example, Jane, who described herself as lazy, had only just retired a year ago from an extremely stressful job, sometimes working 16 hours a day. So, compared to her hectic pre-retirement life, her life now – sleeping 12 hours every night and doing what she wants, when she wants – is much more relaxed and ‘lazy’.


In research, we take concepts for granted and think we understand what is meant by a core concept – like health and activeness. These concepts may sound and be spelt the same but the meaning behind them differs from person to person. We can ask people as many questions about how frequently they exercise or their routines as we want. But when we try to uncover the intensity of that activity or understand something less conscious like low level activity, it is almost impossible to work out what is actually happening.

We triangulated on this project very heavily, but it was only through observations that we actually understood what was happening in terms of activity. Passive observation allows us to objectively assess what someone’s life is really like. It allows us to observe concepts in context and understand the meanings behind the concepts and words people use.

So, are people’s words useless without context? We don’t think so.

Passive observation told us nothing about how Bob, Jane and Alice saw themselves or their aspirations. But the words they used to describe themselves did. It’s important to identify a consumer’s aspirational self – and the words they use can reflect this. The best marketing appeals to consumers’ true, unedited selves but also the person they think they are. And combining passive observation with more traditional research methods, is one way to get this right.