Organizations have had varying degrees of success in utilizing consumer research in their innovation processes. My observation is that this is typically due to a misalignment of expectations for how directly the consumer can influence your product development process.
The way consumer research is utilized in your innovation process should depend on the degree to which you are improving an existing offering or trying to develop a breakthrough. Decisions about which tools are used, how they are used, and which consumers should be included are all impacted by the overarching scope of the effort.
Generally speaking, utilizing consumer research to guide improvements to current offerings can be fairly straightforward. Consumers can be asked about what they like or dislike about certain products, or why they use or don’t use them. This information can be used as criteria to guide improvement programs.
On the other hand, utilizing consumer research to guide the development of a breakthrough is not straightforward at all. Consumers can be asked about their reasons for doing what they do, but they cannot be expected to tell you what to do. The goal should be to discern their decision process, the motivations that drive their decision processes, and the values through which all choices are filtered. This information should then be translated into criteria by which successful solutions can be chosen.
Regardless of the project goals, the basic steps for consumer research will remain the same; identify which consumers to research, uncover their needs, define the benefits, identify the constraints, and evaluate. However, the execution of these steps will change based on whether the goal is for improvement or breakthrough innovation. Let’s briefly walk through an example to illustrate the differences. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll go back in time and imagine that we’re trying to improve on the desktop computer, and the laptop has not yet been introduced.
When the goal is to improve current offerings, it is important to focus on what motivates a consumer to choose from the available offerings today. Knowing how consumers make decisions in your category is the key to understanding these motivations, and criteria for success will ensure that the consumer will choose your offering. Here’s how the process would play out:
Identify consumers to research: We would identify consumers who used desktop computers, including a mix of people who used our product, as well as our competitors’ products. We would also want to interview a few people who did not use a desktop computer.
Uncover the needs: We would observe people using their computers, and conduct ergonomic studies. We would interview the people who used a desktop computer about their experiences, and decision process behind their choice to use the computer. We would also make sure we understood how the computer helped them to accomplish their tasks, and observe any behaviors that were workarounds for less desirable use experiences. From the laggards, we would also identify the hurdles for using a desktop computer. This is because uncovering the hurdles that keep a laggard from adopting a product can sometimes result in benefits everyone will prefer.
Define the benefits: The benefits would consist of improvements that made it easier for people to accomplish their tasks with the desktop computer. If we found that the computer took up most of the desk space that was typically used for other things, we would define benefits to making the computer more modular, flexible in its positioning, and less intrusive overall. For example, this would lead to the identification that flat screen technology would deliver a desirable benefit.
Identify criteria and constraints: The realistic requirements that will improve our current offering to get closer to the ideal experience are defined. For example, while an idea like developing a flat screen would enable a very desirable benefit, its realization would be too far into the future to impact current improvements. In the meantime, we would focus on improvements such as making the computer work in multiple configurations. Requirements would include features such as, ensuring that the inner components would work in multiple orientations, or that a mouse should fit the ergonomics of the hand, among other improvements.
Evaluate: We would evaluate these solutions with consumers, being specific as to what they are intended to do. This is not a preference test; it is an evaluation of how well the consumer can accomplish specific tasks as compared to previous and competitive offerings.
When the goal is to develop a breakthrough, it is important to focus on what motivates a consumer to engage in specific behaviors that help them to accomplish their goals. Knowing how consumers decide what to do in different situations is the key to understanding these motivations, and criteria for success will ensure that the consumer will perceive your new offering as necessary to their success. Here’s how the process would play out:
Identify consumers to research: We would identify consumers who had desktop computers, but maybe didn’t use them as often as they liked. We would definitely want to interview a few people who did not use a desktop computer at all, but would value the benefits of document storage, easy file modification, and anything else the computer offered at that time.
Uncover the needs: We would observe people going through their day, and observe how they are accomplishing their tasks. We would then interview them about why they did the things we saw them doing. We would also ask about why they weren’t using the computer for more of their day-to-day tasks, especially if their motivations were consistent with the benefits the computer offered. We would also make sure we understood how they defined success in accomplishing their goals, how they chose and used different tools to help them to be more effective, and why they weren’t using the computer more often. We would also look at analogous categories of products these consumers found invaluable in getting through their day.
Define the benefits: The benefits would define an experience that would make it easier for people to accomplish their tasks. For example, we may have found that the computer tied people down and decreased their face-time with others. We may also have found that people did not like the fact that their work would pile up until they could find the time to sit at the computer, or that they did not have access to information while they were away from the office. For them, even if the current benefits of the desktop computer were valued, the duplication of steps required to realize those benefits would not be worth the time and effort.
Identify criteria and constraints: At this point the criteria for success acknowledges the value in a portable solution that enables access to information from anywhere, and the computer does not cause redundant steps. It also becomes important that the solution facilitates connections between people, rather than being an obstacle to them. This would lead to a prioritization of networking solutions to facilitate connection. Size and weight constraints would drive the development of a portable system. In essence, we begin to define the laptop computer as we know it.
Evaluate: We would evaluate potential solutions based on how well they improved a person’s ability to do their jobs. We are less concerned with how it compares to a desktop computer because it is intended to provide different benefits than the desktop computer. Consumers selected for evaluation should desire the benefits a laptop would enable. These may not be people who use current desktop computers, as they are probably satisfied with current benefits.
It becomes clear that while the steps are essentially the same, the focus of the work is different depending upon whether the goal is to develop an improvement or a breakthrough, leading to vastly different conclusions and criteria. It can be seen that when developing an improvement, the consumer can influence the criteria development much more directly than when developing a breakthrough. The key is to clearly define the scope of the project, align expectations for how directly the consumer can influence the success criteria, and then conduct research that will solicit the right level of consumer feedback. Consumers can and should guide all of your innovation efforts, as long as you use their feedback wisely.
Ellen Di Resta is an independent consultant focused on early stage marketing, product development, and innovation. Her work is grounded in consumer understanding, providing cross disciplinary synergy and organizational goal setting. She can be reached at www.ellendiresta.com.