‘I work to build products that people use, that benefit them and that they love’

We meet Nicki Morley.

Psychologists – like many other professionals – change their jobs more quickly these days and are involved in areas that might have seemed unconventional to practitioners even 20 years ago. When Ian Florance interviewed Nicki Morley, she was working as Consumer Marketing Insights Director at Unilever. 

What does a job like yours involve? ‘Global research for home care brands. We collect insights from consumers, which are then incorporated into the design of new products. I’m also involved in product testing and measuring how successful a product has been. I’m getting more and more interested in disruptive innovation: new ideas which create new markets. We use a huge variety of research approaches – from ethnography to robustly designed quantitative analysis. The aim is often to find implicit, unmet needs which customers might not be able to articulate. I often use the phrase from Henry Ford “If I had asked consumers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”.’

Does what you do relate to your psychological training? ‘Absolutely. One of the defining characteristics of becoming a psychologist is that it teaches you experimental rigour and a wide range of research techniques to gather different kinds of valid, reliable evidence. We also draw insights from the whole field of behavioural sciences, in particular neuroscience and behavioural economics.’

Unilever has been in business since the 1880s. In 2015 it had a turnover of 53.5 billion euros with a workforce of 168,000 people. Among its brands are many household names, yet it’s clear from the Unilever website and quotations from the group’s CEO that the company is very socially engaged and promotes sustainable living. That sort of concern lends itself to the sorts of behaviour change techniques used in many areas – health psychologists working on smoking cessation, for instance.

Nosiness is a good way into psychology
Nicki grew up in Bournemouth, went to the local girls’ grammar school and then studied at the University of Plymouth. ‘I took a degree in psychology and then a PhD in cognitive psychology. My mum’s judgement was “You were born to be a psychologist.” I people-watched from a very young age, and I think all-round nosiness is a good way into psychology. I discovered the subject for myself when I did a social biology A-level and got so interested in the psychological aspects that I took time out to do an A-level in the subject. I was really interested in why people behaved in different ways as well as fascinated by the nature–nurture debate and how twin studies illuminated it.’

Like many graduates, Nicki originally thought she was going to train to be a clinical psychologist ‘but then I read a book Human Reasoning: The Psychology of Deduction co-written by, among others, Professor Jonathan Evans, which left me fascinated by the tension between logic and belief. I became really interested in cognitive science, in aspects of thinking, particularly how the brain appeared to seemingly make biased errors of judgement. These were the early days of System 1 and System 2 thinking: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical. I was fortunate enough to get a funded PhD to work with Professor Evans on the influence of beliefs on human thinking.’

‘What good are you doing for the world?’
Nicki was asked that question at a dinner party and had problems both answering it and, indeed, explaining exactly what she did. ‘This motivated me to move further into applied psychology, completing several postdoc research projects which had definite real-world applications. One example is that I researched a system for categorising digital photographs. Then there was a project around building a model for insurance fraud detection; that has an obvious impact on most of us. I was also involved in designing warning labels for use on pesticides – ensuring therefore that they aren’t left where a child might find them but are stored safely. That was when the importance of understanding different kinds of research methodology came home to me.’

Moving to Unilever might be seen as quite a jump from, say, researching issues at Plymouth or Lancaster University, but Nicki doesn’t see it that way. ‘My first job at Unilever was to manage a series of applied research projects; and when I joined, the atmosphere was very academic, with a lot of contact with universities. Perhaps I have less involvement with them in my latest role but, in the end, academics are often ahead of the curve so it’s important to understand their research. Universities seem to work on a different, slower timetable than commercial companies though, so there are sometimes complications around working together.’

Nicki talked at the British Psychological Society’s 2016 Psychology4Graduates event. What sort of messages did she want to put across? ‘Communicating how wonderful it is to work in an applied psychology job; you’re a psychologist every day and you have to be constantly creative.’ Is there any tension between being a psychologist and working in a commercial company? ‘No. As I say, at Unilever we use stringent research techniques and draw on the latest theoretical developments. I work to build products that people use, that benefit them and that they love. A commercial environment will perhaps slow down publication of research findings through the checks in place, but there are no other issues around intellectual property. Good companies want to be associated with robust and high-quality research. Of course, there is a perception that industry perhaps doesn’t always use the discipline properly, but Unilever certainly prides itself on only working with the best academics and industry research partners who understand the discipline well and apply it accurately to the problem at hand.’

What advice would you give to someone thinking of training as a psychologist? ‘Keep your understanding broad. Gain experience of different fields. Most particularly, if you get a chance to see psychology applied in the real world, do so.’

What issues are you interested in now? ‘Design thinking, the psychology of innovation and design, and genuinely new sorts of innovation. An insight is only an insight if you can do something with it, and we work with designers and design students to turn an idea into something tangible. In fact, we work with a huge variety of different experts, which is also a joy of the job.’

And outside work? ‘I used to dance, gave up at university but have just done my final tap exams. I think my dancing days are over. I have two musical children. I travel around Cheshire. And I go for long walks with my dog.’

The next instalment
A few weeks later, Nicki mailed to say she was leaving Unilever. It’s early days in her new work life, but she gave us a brief idea of how that work links in to some of the issues she raises above.

‘I have decided to follow my passion for design thinking, qualitative psychology and innovation and was offered a role as Head of Innovation at Brand Dynamics, an entrepreneurial start-up agency focusing on delimiting qualitative research and the process of innovation.

I am delighted to be working for a start-up where I can truly utilise all my psychological understanding but couple this with learning how to work in a smaller entrepreneurial agency.’

- To read these and other careers interviews, see www.thepsychologist.org.uk/meets                  

Might you have an interesting story to tell about your career path, the highs and lows of your current role or the professional challenges you are facing? If you would like to be considered for a ‘Careers’ interview in The Psychologist, get in touch with the editor Dr Jon Sutton ([email protected]). Of course there are many other ways to contribute to The Psychologist, but this is one that many find to be particularly quick, easy and enjoyable.

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