Most businesses understand that innovation and new products are critical activities for their success. But neither innovation nor great new products simply come like a flash of lightning. As Idris Mootee writes in the Ivey Business Journal: “Innovation is a process, and while the introduction of a genuinely innovative product or service may be highly publicized or even glamorous, the process itself is driven much less by creative brainstorming or strategic planning than by carefully managed and highly-sophisticated cross-disciplinary thinking and research.”
The type of research best applied to the front end of innovation is qualitative research. Unlike in the more structured quantitative survey, qualitative works when you don’t know what questions to ask. Use a qualitative research setting to explore your customers’ challenges, needs, and pain points.
While focus groups usually come to mind when businesses think about qualitative research, and indeed can be used to explore the customer needs and challenges that you leverage to innovative product and service launches, consider utilizing an alternative amongst the multiple qualitative techniques available.
- In-Depth interviews work best when you want to get profound and rich information out of each participant. Because these are one-on-one interviews (done in person, by telephone, or by videoconference), and not done with a group of people, you get more information from each participant. Additionally, if your participants are widely dispersed geographically then in-depth interviews are an excellent choice, or if you don’t want them speaking openly in front of other participants (for example, in the case of competitors.) For example, a one-hour discussion with plant managers could give you a lot of information about their pet peeves and how they would change products.
- Ethnographies are another qualitative research technique that is valuable in the front end of product development. In this method, the target customer is recruited to have a researcher observe them as they proceed through an individual task or for a particular period. What power tools do contractors use over others? How do plant employees use their safety equipment – really? And most importantly, in addition to observing behavior, the researcher will ask the participant why they are making the choices they make, how satisfied they are with their choices, and how they would want the options improved. When the research setting is in-person, consider using Ethnographies. In some cases, a researcher may choose to use mobile ethnographies using smartphones, in some research situations. Ever wondered how those plastic garbage bags got built-in ties? Ethnographers saw consumers searching for twist ties!
- Diary research involves recruiting participants to keep a detailed record of their actions, thoughts, feeling and reactions in performing a certain task, or using an individual product. Diaries are often supplemented with specific tasks to perform, or images/videos/recordings to upload, as well as questions to answer. Diary projects result in very rich, detailed information that researchers then mine for insight into challenges, problems, and needs that could potentially result in product innovation. Diaries have answered the question “How do engineers spend their days?” And the question, “How can we make it easier to schedule meetings?” Again, diaries. Now many researchers are using smartphones for diary research. They allow researchers to interact with their participants by voice, email, and text, and participants can easily record images and videos. Of course, the added benefit to smartphones is that most participants have them accessible most hours in the day!
These are a few of the more traditional qualitative research methods used to gain insight to feed the development of sought-after product concepts and ideas for further development and testing. However, the key to any qualitative research project done to support innovation and new product development is always to remember: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” You are doing this project to learn, to gain new perspectives, and hopefully to find that kernel of insight that leads to breakthrough innovation. You must challenge sacred cows and “the way we’ve always done it” and approach the entire project with fresh eyes and mind.