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March 5, 2013

Better Design Research: 10 Quick Tips

Many CPG marketers I talk to seem convinced that the same qualitative methods they use for ongoing brand work are also right for testing product and package concept development.  But I tell them that the tasks are very different, and demand different approaches.  That’s because ideating, screening and evaluating fresh concepts requires investigation of functional, perceptual and emotional attributes.  So it expects consumers to use abstract thinking:  To consider potential occasions, usage dynamics, aesthetics and brand imagery.  That’s tough to do in a standard-issue focus group.

So here are some tips for making the most of research for concept development:

1)      Expand your notion of what a “concept” is.  Showing 2D sketches is the default activity.  But these can be redundant, confusing and downright misleading.  How about starting with alternative Consumer Promise statements that pose the problem, solution and features in different ways for consumer feedback.  Then, show discrete 2D or 3D concepts that deliver on those promises in unique ways.  See which ones best support the preferred promise.  And which ones undermine it.  Then, work with consumers real-time to advance the best ideas.

2)      When bringing consumers together in groups, make sure you allow them to do what they do best.  And avoid what they don’t.  Work as a small team—perhaps no more than 3 or 4.  No one can hide under the table, and no one can monopolize the conversation.  Then, have them react to preliminary stimuli in a way that focuses them on specific attributes individually, and the best way to deliver that utility.  That’s how you sidestep Groupthink.

3)      Make sure the stimuli you show are disparate enough to prevent confusion and prompt some lively conversation.  You may only be interested in minor differences in closures or shape, but show some wider reaching concepts for context and to indicate where on a spectrum the most preferred solutions lie.  This is probably the flaw I see most frequently (and seek to disarm) in concept testing.

4)      Re-think expensive rendering and model building activities.  Look for ways to show “concepts” that get to the heart of what you’d like to test in each.  Often, “found objects” (products currently for sale across all kinds of categories) can stand in for traditional concept boards and models to demonstrate specific feature alternatives and benefits.  And, this has the added upside of getting consumers to focus on unique attributes rather than parse multi-functional, flat depictions.

5)      Let consumers play with your stuff.  Mock up usage environments to mimic occasions.  Could be the car, the kitchen, the lunch box, the home office or the briefcase.  While you may think this is “fake”, I’d argue that with latitude, consumers can approximate how they use products to generate much better insight into functionality.  And this type of theater gives you permission to show them early stage breadboards and found objects without losing credibility.

6)      Ethnography can be a great way to identify unrecognized needs and drive preliminary concepts.  But make sure you’re not conducting “mock” ethnography in the real world.  I don’t know how many times a recruiter has asked me which store I’d like to do the shopping occasion in, what time I’d like to visit consumers in their homes, and what would I like the consumer to have on hand to demonstrate an activity.  WRONG.

7)      Make sure the output of your research is designed to build team consensus and drive the decisions that must be made at each stage of development.  Vivid analytical tools can help, as can specific criteria and integration exercises.  This is not just about identifying the strongest idea, but about communicating results in ways that every team member understands them and can see them brought to life in both physical and strategic ways.

8)      Work with consumers real-time to refine your preliminary concepts in new sketches.  Combine some of the pointers above with ideation and integration exercises that pull together their stated preferences across functional and perceptual dimensions.  Then, you can walk away from the research with a pile of documented, optimized concepts that represent group consensus.

9)      Seek to get “qual / quant” feedback, so preferences are clear and you can better understand not just the Why and the What, but the degree of Why and What.  What are the most important attributes?  Which concept best embodies them?  The right tools can capture data to show you what’s the head-and-shoulders directional winner.  Reviewing the focus group tapes can’t.

10)   Find a qualitative research resource that understands the product and package development process, and how research fits.  Researchers can be great with consumers, but if they ask the wrong questions and use the wrong methods, valuable (and valid) information will be lost.  A familiarity with the key decisions to be made at each stage of development, and information required to make them is critical to structuring research that gets a project one step closer to success.

Bonus Tip: When developing your recruiting criteria, don’t focus just on current users and target prospects.  Think about two kinds of rejecters, too:  Those that have used your product and stopped; and those who are aware of it and considered it but decided in favor of a substitute.

So, next time you’re planning design research, don’t automatically book the moderator, sketch some stim and recruit some bodies.  Think about how the task at hand is different from day-to-day market research.  Think about what you’re expecting from consumers.  And design the research to ensure you get it.

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