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When I first entered the field of market research years ago, the CEO of our small boutique firm routinely stated that “our greatest challenge doesn’t come from other research firms, but from prospective clients who feel they don’t need research.” Thankfully, most companies recognize that market research plays a critical role in market success, but even that enlightened view is not sufficient to guarantee success.
After all, what does “market research” for any given organization actually mean? When is it needed? How should it be applied? Even those who are committed to better serving their customers can find themselves making some very basic mistakes when it comes to using or not using market research. Following are two common mistakes that businesses make when it comes to market research and product development.
Mistake #1: Developing Products in a Vacuum
Development teams are usually very familiar with the history and details of their current products because of the central role these developers played in bringing the products to market. However, this intimate knowledge can sometimes cause teams to be overly confident in their ability to define and specify the next generation of products and/or enhancements. As current product experts, these individuals sometimes assume that they are also future product experts who don’t need a lot of outside input. In turn, these individuals can start to inject their own interests and values into the process and inadvertently take product development in a direction that is contrary to customer needs.
In an earlier life, I worked at a firm that had developed a small and very sophisticated control unit. Because the unit was so small, there were only a couple of buttons to activate specific features. As a result, the developer decided that he needed to design each button to be multifunctional so that a different number of button pushes in succession would access different features.
After the product was developed and user testing began, customers discovered that they were accessing features that they didn’t want or need because they had inadvertently pushed the button more than once. When all was said and done, users didn’t want a product overloaded with features. Instead, they wanted a product that they could use reliably with a single touch of a button.
Mistake #2: Assuming Research is “One and Done”
While development teams sometimes fail to research their assumptions early enough, many others recognize that successful product design depends on a researched understanding of customer needs. In turn, these teams are diligent about conducting initial investigations into how a customer operates, unmet needs, and what criteria would be critical in any new product.
Unfortunately, once this initial research is complete, some then make the mistake of assuming that this round of research has given them all of the direction they require. After all (so the thinking goes), once customer needs have been identified, what more needs to be done?
While an initial round of research is critical in establishing an overall development direction, many things can go awry if the teams stop there. In some cases, the team can misinterpret customer feedback or even draw the wrong conclusions from the data. During early stage development, customers can sometimes struggle with fully visualizing the product concept, understanding its details, and determining all its potential advantages and disadvantages. In other circumstances, the product concept continues to evolve after the initial research is done and the team must make decisions to resolve different feature and performance trade-offs.
If research is considered a one-time event that occurs only at the beginning of the development process, then development teams run the risk of introducing fundamentally flawed products. On the other hand, if market research is treated as an ongoing process that helps guide and refine development throughout, the probabilities of success increase significantly.
As a product manager for a wireless headset product years ago, I remember dutifully conducting research about how many hours of battery life consumers were demanding from a wearable battery pack. The response was consistent: users insisted that they get an eight-hour battery life and would be unwilling to accept anything less. Fortunately, we mocked up a unit that approximated the size and weight of such a battery pack and went back to these users for their feedback. At that point, the users recoiled in horror and indicated that in no way would they ever be willing to wear something so big and clunky! A four-hour battery life and a much smaller battery pack was immediately considered ideal, while the eight-hour battery pack became a discarded, flawed idea overnight.
Market Research: A Low-Risk, High-Return Proposition
New product development is clearly a high-risk, high-return endeavor that businesses are forced to embrace to sustain and grow. Fortunately, well-conceived and well-executed market research can both limit the risks and increase the returns. Yet, market research requirements can vary dramatically based on the circumstances of each individual organization.
Versatile, full-service research firms help businesses address this issue by identifying key development inflection points, as well as specific qualitative and quantitative research needed at each point. It is through such close, working relationships with qualified research partners that businesses can greatly increase the likelihood of positive product development outcomes.