One shot research methods are easy to buy; easy to sell but are the hardest to create value in early stage innovation. A Learning Program solves this problem. It is a uniquely designed research plan to provide learning over a period of time and allow for participants to build critical insight through immersion. It’s in a non-traditional research format that is ad hoc and designed “on the fly” but allows for building upon ideas and interaction between subject and observer. These programs minimize non-value added research costs (traditional focus group approaches and facilities, rigid time constraints and detailed research plans and reports) while maximizing the ability to uncover consumer unmet needs and create inspiration and insight in the discovery of new ideas. There are four distinct principles that must be in every plan:
- Multiple Methods
Iteration is pervasive in the principles for successful front-end innovation. Front-end innovation by definition is pre-concept, meaning it is the work to gather the ideas, thoughts and insights about target customer unmet needs which will guide identification of the core concept or business model to be developed. We find that setting a budget range and a big picture plan is well received and avoids uneasiness in managing the uncertainty that is necessary to create value in this process. The plan will provide a flexible framework with appropriate boundaries to allow for best practice iteration and typically would look something like this:
Phase I. Frame the Problem
We begin with an initial exploration to understand the vision and the problem statement (yes, write it down). Gather strategic questions by asking “What do we know or think we know and what don’t we know” and put them into hypotheses. Don’t fall in love with these hypotheses, they are ideas without facts. It is a good idea to also conduct some background research to explore macros trends, emerging technology and a capabilities assessment to understand what the organization does uniquely well. With this information, it is easy to direct a simple, focused Learning Program. This will save a lot of money and time and reduce complexity of analysis by really digging in here. This is an open minded, strategic process that is worth the time not to skip over.
Phase II. Discovery
The Learning Program initial research design will provide a quick and easy method to cover a breadth of topics. We typically utilize Accelerated Learning Connects to talk with a larger number of consumers in one group to get at this breadth. These programs are very “loose” and iterative by design. We conduct them in a casual setting with structured activities. They look more like an intense ideation session, but the focus is on consumer insight into unmet needs. Make no mistake, this is research to garner consumer insight not participatory ideation with consumers. Contextual research, such as observation (in home or at a specific event or place), helps us understand the situation and behavior from which concepts that improve the life of a consumer will be designed. Let the facts gathered guide the outcome, just as a detective does; be the bloodhound and follow your nose – not your preferred/hypothesized answers. The goal is to identify the logic in how consumers react and behave as well as what unmet needs to pursue further. It’s the “map” that will move the project from the desire to find something new to the mental connections (or insights into unmet needs) that guide our journey to find a high probability concept or new business model.
Phase III. Concept Development
We use an ideation session or strategic workshop to bring a cross-functional team together to improve the output of identifying winning concepts. For validation, the concepts may be optimized with groups of consumers providing feedback on benefits or positioning messaging, nomenclature, etc. It is typical to consider a quantitative online concept test where the target’s willingness to try the product as compared to benchmarks of existing competitive products is tested. Other methods can include a quick-to-market pilot of final products or an in-market test of product prototypes to learn and judge market success.
The other factors we have found helpful in our research design are:
Don’t rush to judgment, take some time. Ideas, like wine, need to age an appropriate amount of time; analysis should be proportional to time spent data collecting. Remember life’s balance and avoid all work and no play which makes for a dull day (all research, no analysis equals limited insight and success). Project leaders must be deliberate and pre-meditated as part of the plan to provide a format to take advantage of collaboration. Nonetheless, time is not unlimited. Typically this process should take no more than 8 business days from data collection to insight as a guideline.
We embrace diversity of thought, allow client and consultant to intermix ideas and lead with a flat team hierarchy. An assessment of the team to understand their natural thinking style and how they contribute can reduce tension and help the entire team value diverse thinking styles. Observing from afar or not having the core team members involved in data collection or analysis limits the value of the client-research team. We want to make 1 + 1 = 3. A good first step is to eliminate the behind the glass separation found in a classic focus group. A traditional focus group facility can actually sub-optimize the needed interaction and flexibility in early stage innovation research. Experienced researchers can eliminate this artificial separation by training team members in appropriate direct participation and help eliminate the fear of getting involved in the “experiment.” Next time you fall asleep behind the glass or miss a research event due to office pressures… think about this.
Companies and even suppliers get enamored with the one tool or technique that works to uncover unmet needs. The team can get lucky- it happens, but it is more likely that answers are found by coming at it from several vantage points. Front-end innovation is advanced problem solving and if the charge is to provide product concepts with a high-probability of success, triangulation of methods is the key. Triangulation is the way we size market opportunities, it’s the way we validate the road map and it’s the best way we ensure the project is heading in the right direction. Employing multiple methods (#4) isn’t even more expensive because in this process we are committed to iteration (#1) and a series of smaller research events spaced over time (#2). When that is combined with involvement of a team (#3) who values diversity in thinking, we are in the “high probability of success bracket” for finding the next big thing.