Welcome to Bellbird.

Our blog contains a great many articles on user / usability testing, plain language, research with 'older' people and different research methods.


Overwhelmed by proprietary qualitative methodologies?


Four ways to focus on what you need from qualitative research (and help you ignore the sales pitch)

There are so many qualitative research techniques and methods available at the moment, it can be a challenge to work out what to use when. Making sense of what is out there takes a lot of time.

It can also be a challenge navigating your way through the sales pitch which is often based on a very narrow perspective of what qual research is for.

Hand on heart, I haven’t used or even evaluated anywhere near all of the methods and platforms around, but I do have some rules of thumb when choosing what method or platform I use.

These are the four questions I ask (in order).

1. Does it suit the people I need the information from?

This is the start point. If the tool or method doesn’t suit the research participants for that project, I don’t use it.

For example, I recently wrote a proposal for research with the parents of newborns. As I was writing, I was very conscious of the fact that parents of newborns have the most unpredictable schedule of any person ever. I knew we would need a method that allows them the flexibility to choose when to take part and for how long. That rules out any kind of ‘live’ group discussion whether online or face to face. There can be pressure to conduct online live groups because they are quick to turn around. For some people like parents of newborns – any group method is best avoided.

2. What do I need to learn?

Next, I think about the topic and what I need to find out.

Maybe you need to learn what people do when out in the ‘real world’, when a researcher or ethnographer would get in the way? Then you need an in-the-moment video or screen-recording tool, as long as whatever it is they are doing doesn’t take very long.

If we need to capture behaviour over a short period of time like a week, diaries work well. But what if the purchase process for your product occurs over months?

Perhaps you have listened to sales people who tell you that ‘people can’t remember’ so you should not ask them about their past behaviour? My advice is to ignore the sales talk and use common sense. Of course people can remember. Personally, I am quite happy asking people to think back over what happened in the past as long as the topic is reasonably distinctive, was fairly recent, and I can build something into the design to help people remember – and ‘distinctive’ is crucial here.  Some brands, services and experiences are more distinctive than others, so are easier to recall. In contrast, people may struggle to remember a brand in a crowded category, or one similar experience of many. It is this kind of nuanced and contextual thinking that I find missing from much of the discourse on these methods.

3  What role does the moderator or researcher play?

The third question to ask is what role does the researcher or moderator play?

Can participants work on their responses remotely or do they need a researcher there to engage them, to ask questions, probe, explain, cajole or keep them on track? I like online boards that give the moderator multiple different ways to interact with people.

The best qual tools and methods have the flexibility to allow the researchers to modify the questions or create new tasks midway through the project. Personally I tend to avoid platforms where the software provider has to do the uploading because changing things on the fly becomes really cumbersome for the researcher, especially if she and the provider are in a different time zone.

4. What about other people?

Life is social. We are all social animals. One of the biggest problems with survey research is that it assumes that people can answer as individuals. Qual research gives us the opportunity to redress that.

So the fourth question I ask is: is the topic we are researching something that people use or see when they are with other people? There's an interesting thing that happens when couples of a similar age come to think about retirement. If one of them retires, the other may feel pressure to do the same - even though none of their previous work decisions have been synchronised.  Obviously as researchers we need a method that helps us understand this kind of interaction. 


To sum up, the best way to choose what qualitative research method or platform to use is to ignore the sales pitches and focus on these four factors in order: Does it suit your participant? Does it suit the topic? Does it allow the researcher or moderator to do what is best for the project, and does it take into account that people are social beings?

When conducted with forethought, qualitative research reveals rich insights. Enjoy!

Something is happening to Christmas

Something is happening to Christmas, specifically Christmas cooking - at least as far as the major women’s magazines are concerned.

How do I know this?

Every year in Australia and the UK, the major women’s magazines put out a Christmas edition full of craft, décor and cooking ideas for Christmas.

This has given consumer behaviour specialist Lynne Freeman and me a lovely opportunity to flex our semiotic muscles and analyse how Christmas is represented in the two countries and how each country has changed over time, focusing especially on food.

We know from the anthropologist Victor Turner's work on ritual how important it is that that the food we eat at Christmas is different from the meals we eat the rest of the time. That is what marks it out as a ritual and gives it its emotional power.


In this article, we focus on the Christmas cookery sections of the 2021 edition of two magazines: the UK’s Good Housekeeping (GH) and the Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW).  These are the highest selling women’s magazines in their respective countries, and each has a dedicated Christmas edition.

How Christmas used to be represented

Over the years, each magazine has spoken with an authoritative voice about how the Christmas meal should be prepared. They gave instructions, timetables and tips.

The meal they instructed us to make was displayed on tables over-filled with beautifully presented food, implying that all successful Christmases came from abundance and perfection. If an ‘alternative’ was presented it was portrayed as somehow un-Christmas-y, sometimes even described as ‘cheating’. A ‘true’ Christmas meal was one that not only conformed to traditions, but did so in a colourful and playful way.

That was in the past. The year 2021 was a tumultuous year in both countries.  What did these magazines offer their readers this Christmas?

A shift towards greater freedom and away from ‘one size fits all’?

We believe that we are starting to see a shift in the message that is coming from these magazines. Specifically, we expect over the next few years that the family’s Christmas cook will feel greater freedom to create Christmas meals that suit their own family size and composition. 

The story from the UK

The food section of the UK’s GH December 2021 was different this year in several ways:

  1. The 2021 edition offered greater diversity in terms of the form that the celebration can take, compared with previous years. Aside from “the Ultimate Festive Feast” that gave us a sumptuous menu for 8, they had a festive feast for beginners with a menu for 6 that paired easier recipes and reduced cost, and a “Deliciously Different” feature that gave alternative approaches to the centrepiece of the festive meal for singles, couples, larger groups, vegans and vegetarians.
  2. Gone were the recipes for large crowds, or an expectation of 12 around the table. These were more intimate family meals - the editorial talks of our “being able to gather with our nearest and dearest”. In 2020 there was an (unfounded) level of optimism that Covid 19 wouldn’t stop Christmas being celebrated as usual; this year the food section reflects an acceptance that the scale might have to be reduced.
  3. Most of the recipes came with friendly advice on cooking ahead, how they could be adapted for vegans, detailed cooking instructions, detailed nutritional information and glossy pictures.

The sense of Christmas magic remains despite these changes. The food is still mostly the traditional foods of turkey, ham, multiple side dishes, seasonal cocktails and a flaming Christmas pudding.  The magic comes from serving a feast to your ‘nearest and dearest’ that embraces their diversity and celebrates the inclusivity of a modern Christmas.

The story from Australia

In past years, the AWW has always built a narrative round the Christmas cooking section. It typically showed multiple generations of a middle class white family milling around an (outdoor) table. There were also large pictures of the celebrity chef who had created the recipes.

In 2021, the people and the larger narrative were missing, apart from some quite small pictures of celebrity chefs and some mentions of togetherness and ‘shared feasting’.  Instead, the food was the feature.

While this minimalist narrative seemed less engaging, it does suggest to us that the magazine is perhaps deliberately attempting to place less pressure on their readers who in 2021 only had to cook and were not being pressured to create a magical meal on the dot of 1 p.m.  In past editions, it was usually the women who were shown serving the food. Removing them from the narrative also works to create a more inclusive tone.

In other respects, the AWW presented Christmas as they have for the last few decades. As always, most of the recipes were suited to a colder climate - roast pork, turkey and ham – with salads as ‘sides’.  The magazine was as usual silent on the practicalities of cooking, serving and eating a hot meal in mid-summer.

The AWW was also silent about anyone wanting to cook any kind of alternative meal. None of the recipes was marked as suitable for vegetarians or people with a gluten free diet and advice to modify the recipes to suit was missing.

It was silent too on the topic of the pandemic. It wasn’t until the last pages of the cooking section that the magazine acknowledged that 2021 had been a difficult year.

There was a strange timelessness to all of this, as if we had all been transported back in time. All recipes were for 6 to 8 people. No singles. No couples. Not even any large groups.

What this means for food producers, retailers and marketers

Our analysis over the years has painted a unique picture of changing trends that is highly valuable to marketers, advertisers and retailers who want to keep track of changes in consumer behaviour especially during these pandemic times.

In 2022, we expect to see these magazines give us recipes for versions of the traditional Christmas foods, as they have for decades. However, we believe that we will see the magazines taking a softer line, aiming for diversity and inclusivity.  It will be interesting to see whether Australia follows the UK in creating Christmas recipes for families of all sizes and types. The challenge will be in how they convey the playfulness that marks Christmas out as a special meal on a special day

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How to understand older people and tech #2: familiarity

Why some older people like tech and others don't

In the first article in this series, I talked about how older people are more likely to use 'crystallised' rather than 'fluid'  intelligence' when they use technology.  That concept really seemed to resonate with a lot of people!


However, it leaves some unanswered questions, particularly because it implies that all older people are the same. Obviously that is a silly idea in general but it is especially true when it comes to older people and tech.

You may know someone who is a tech geek, who is knowledgeable and efficient with the technology they use.  One the other, you may know someone who would rather run a mile than figure out how to use Zoom.

Why is this and what does it mean for how marketers should best communicate with older people?

It's all to do with where they worked

Some older people have had decades of experience with technology, while others have little tech experience and intend to keep it that way. This is quite simply because people who worked in office environments from about the 90’s onwards had to learn how to use new technology every few years. For example, they learned the language of ‘desktops’, ‘files’ and folders’. Some who worked in a tech environment have used terminology like ‘interface’ for many years.

However, people who didn’t work in tech or in offices did not have this exposure and did not learn this language.

What to do: write for the less experienced user

  • Do not assume that people who have never worked at a desk know what a ‘desktop’ or an IPad is.
  • Don’t use a technical word – like ‘interface’ -  if a more familiar word will do instead.
  • If you must use a technical term, use it in a short sentence and define it or point to it visually.

And above all, do not equate lack of familiarity with lack of intelligence. It’s just a function of where they spent their time.

But aren't smartphones 'intuitive'?

There's a great book called The Global Smartphone Beyond a youth technology by Daniel Miller and others. The authors make the point that smartphones are 'not intuitive':

"Smartphones are not intuitive devices for those who are not familiar with them. For example, an older person is told to download an app. They look at their phone and see an icon called ‘Downloads’; they duly press this, which gets them nowhere at all. How would they ever guess that the appropriate icon is called ‘Play Store’?" *



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* Miller, Daniel; Walton, Shireen; Wang, Xinyuan; Abed Rabho, Laila; Awondo, Patrick; de Vries, Maya; Duque, Marília; Garvey, Pauline; Haapio-Kirk, Laura; Hawkins, Charlotte; Otaegui, Alfonso. The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology (Ageing with Smartphones) (p. 245). UCL Press. Kindle Edition.



The five things you should know when targeting older consumers

Many of our corporate and policy clients want to understand their older customers and users better, especially in terms of how this group use digital resources.

As a result, we at Susan Bell Research have enjoyed many great conversations with people in the ‘older’ age group. We have also talked to specialists on ageing, and drawn on insights from psychology about how people age.

All of this has told us that the organisations most likely to have older customers happily using digital resources are those who understand these five things:

  1. Older people vary in how familiar they are with digital resources. Assume nothing.
  2. The best digital experiences for older people take advantage of their crystallised intelligence
  3. The less older people have to keep in short term memory the better they will understand your content
  4. How people like to see themselves depicted in marketing material changes as they age
  5. Some people see retirement as an opportunity to relax and escape. For others, it is a time to reinvent yourself

I will be writing a series of blog posts about older people and tech.

The first one is The best digital experiences for older people take advantage of their crystallized intelligence

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How to understand older people and tech #1: crystallised intelligence

The best digital experiences for older people take advantage of their crystallised intelligence

As we age, we gain a type of intelligence called ‘crystallised’ intelligence.

Crystallised intelligence comes from our experiences and the knowledge we have stored in long term memory. We become very good at solving problems by drawing on what we know.

One of the frustrations frequently voiced by older people in our research is how frustrating it is when a tech tool they know well gets updated or re-designed. It’s important to remember that someone with crystallized intelligence will instinctively try to solve a problem by drawing on familiar concepts and language.


Unfortunately, the designers of some new apps and software have forgotten this lesson. They change the names for things, move things around and change where items are located.

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Why your marketing campaign to sixty somethings might not be working

Is your marketing to people in their sixties working?

Many businesses are vying for the attention of people in their sixties, but are they doing it well?  In this article, I suggest that marketing that uses stock imagery of older people shows them living empty lives.

This thought really came home to me when I was looking for images of people in their sixties for my recent presentation for the ‘Retirement is all different now’ webinar. So many of the images I found left me feeling uncomfortable in a way that I couldn’t quite define.

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How user testing can show you how to write clearly to users and customers

Lessons learned from testing content with users

Many people who are not specialist content writers now find themselves in the position where they have to write to users and customers. If this is you, I know how you feel and I have some suggestions that could help, based on all the UX writing testing that we have conducted over the years.

Here are three reasons why writing to users and customers can be difficult - and three tips that may help.

Writers and readers want different things

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Three reasons not to use work voice when you write to users and customers

Work voice is one of the main reasons why users do not read the content that organisations produce

When users see content written in work voice they skim read it f they read it all; understand less than they read, and feel confused about your brand.

What is your work voice and why is it wrong to use it?

Work voice is the writing style you use when you are writing formally to colleagues, your boss, or the regulator.

It is not the one that you would normally use with your friends and family, or your neighbour.  It should not be the voice you use when writing to your users.



The problem is: you may not know you are doing it!

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If your content is full of jargon, you are at risk of 

  1. Creating unnecessary effort for your users and customers.

  2. Limiting how much they understand, and 

  3. Disengaging them

"Jargon disrupts people’s ability to fluently process scientific information, even when definitions for  the jargon terms are provided. ....... Research shows the less work audiences need to put into reading, the more they will find sources credible, and the better they will connect with the messages. " *

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