When most companies think of innovation, they think of overhauling their current product lines. While that may not be a bad goal, taking a myopic
approach is typically self-limiting. Taking a step back and looking at your product in the context in which it’s used (“peripheral vision”) can lead to more, high-potential ideas. Let me give you an example.
I recently wanted to find a gym that my company could join. Since this was not only for myself, but also for my employees, I spent some time finding
out what their interests and needs were for this opportunity. Good exercise equipment (treadmills, ellipticals, weight machines, etc.) was a given. A few other offerings made our wish list, and these items were compiled as well. With that information in hand, we began looking and comparing. The
closest gym to our office (proximity was high on the list of “needs”) had all of the exercise equipment that we needed, but had no locker room with showers. Since our office does not have showers, this is a must to be practical. We ended up joining a gym further away that could provide us with both the desired equipment and the locker rooms with showers. Interestingly enough, the first gym provided everything that was needed for fitness and exercise. In fact, much of their equipment was state of the art in terms of design and innovation. However they did not get our business. The
second gym used a bit of peripheral vision when designing their facility and realized that showers and a changing room, while not directly tied to exercise or fitness, were important features for their customers.
How could they take this peripheral vision concept a step further? Providing showers allows customers to leave the facility clean, but what are they
lugging out with them? A gym bag full of nasty, sweaty clothes. These clothes can’t be worn again in their current state, so the exerciser must now keep them contained in their car and remember to wash them. The act of exercising has caused the need for additional time and effort. How much would a gym separate themselves from the pack by expanding their offering? Why not provide members with a locker and laundry service? Imagine putting your sweaty clothes in a bin when you were done and finding them washed, dried and in your locker upon your next visit? This could be an optional, up-sell service. How many customers would pay a monthly premium to not have to deal with the extra laundry or to have the ability to go to the gym
on a moment’s notice knowing they’ll have clean workout clothes waiting for them? While a laundry service has even less to do with fitness than a shower does, this compelling offering would satisfy even more unmet needs of their customer.
What approach are you taking with your business? Are you just keeping your core offerings competitive? Or are you looking at the bigger picture of your consumers’ unmet needs? The next time you embark on an innovation project, try the peripheral vision approach. It will open up many opportunities that you would not otherwise consider.
In the past few years, we have interviewed literally hundreds of consumers about a variety of products and services. Some of my favorite interviews take place with couples. I’m convinced you get the most “truthful” feedback when you interview two people (in relationship) as opposed to just one. It’s not that anyone is trying to be deceitful, but people don’t always see themselves (or their own behavior) in the truest of light. They portray themselves in an idealized manner, either consciously or not. When we do the same interview with a consumer and their partner, discrepancies will often be called into the light.
Just yesterday we were interviewing a couple about their past purchases of a new product and it’s ongoing usage. The outspoken husband was telling us in great detail about how he uses a given product. I noticed his wife making some subtle reactions, but remaining quiet. Before long, she couldn’t contain herself any longer, and jumped right into the conversation. ”That’s not at all what you do”, she said. Then she went on to give her perspective on his product usage. Naturally, this led to quite a debate between the two of them. When the discussion finally wound down, they both agreed that the actual behavior was somewhere between what either of them recalled on their own.
This illustrates two points. First, the best path to consumer understanding is real time, in-context observation. However, this is not always possible or practical. The second point is, people don’t always see themselves in a true light. Having another on hand to interact with can bring you closer to reality.
Have you ever noticed how different people can see the same thing but take away such different information? An optimist can read a newspaper article and note that while there are difficulties in the current economy, things are going to get much better. His pessimistic counterpart can read the same bit and be convinced that we’re heading for sure doom.
It’s no different in the business world. Three companies can go out and collect the same information via market research. The first company will find that what they currently provide is sufficient for the marketplace. The second will note incremental improvements that could improve business, and the third will realize that if they pursue these findings in a bold new way, they can experience growth in an unprecedented fashion.
What makes these companies so different? It is a combination of attitude and perspective. The first company noted is change averse, so the information they see merely confirms what they already believe to be true. The second company knows at some level that they need to evolve and grow, but past failures (or rumors of past failures) have them in an ultra-conservative place where only the safest of change is acceptable. The third company is destined for growth and change regardless. The information they find provides them with some strategic direction and focus.
Look closely at this picture of Einstein. Now stand up and step back, it becomes a picture of Marilyn Monroe!
Before you spend a lot of time, money and energy on learning more about your consumer or your marketplace, I would challenge you to take a serious, introspective look into what type of organization you really are. If you find yourself in the first category, merely seeing something new won’t inspire you to change what you do. If you’re in the third, developing a deeper understanding of your customer base could provide the critical difference between strategic growth and chaotic change.
We are working with a client right now that is trying to improve the “purchase process” for their customers. In support of this, we have spent hours following people through their retail shopping experience to better understand the points of confusion that they experience for this product category. At this point we feel we have a pretty good grasp of what the problems are, and a sense of where the opportunities lie. Next week, we bring the client in for a week of analysis and brainstorming. I am very optimistic, that we will come out of that session with some very tangible ideas that will help advance them in their goals.
But I have a sense that there is some tribal knowledge that will have to be dealt with. When we have raised certain issues in the past (regarding packaging, or point of purchase materials) there has been some defensiveness. Comments have been made like, “Well, that’s not really a problem at all. All the customers have to do is to look at the colored bar on the packaging and they’ll immediately know which area to go to”. I can tell you from first hand observation… No one is noticing the colored bars.
This company is really no different than most. When your world revolves around a given industry or product line you live with and see details that evade the “normal consumer”. What is obvious to you is often completely overlooked by them. You see a color coded bar that provides you with direction. Joe Consumer misses the color bar completely as he scans the aisle trying to decide where to focus at all.
So, next week I’m going to send this client on a mission. I’m going to divide them into groups of three and send them into the retail world to buy products they know nothing about. They will be given a challenge (detailing the scenario they are facing) and be expected to go to a big-box store, determine the “right” product and bring it back to the meeting with them. We will then have each group describe (in detail) their shopping experience.
Hopefully they will develop a new sense of empathy for their consumers and appreciate how truly hard it is for the typical (uninformed) consumer to weed through the mass of information to find what they need. Maybe they’ll pick up a technique or two used in other categories that could be incorporated into their own. And maybe they’ll think this was the dumbest thing they’ve ever been asked to do by a service firm, and never speak to us again…
I’ll let you know next week.
It seems that in many organizations Market Research has become a dirty word (okay, a couple of dirty words… a dirty phrase?). It’s something that is perceived as needed, but dreaded at the same time. Kind of like a colonoscopy after the age of 40. No one looks forward to it, but it’s great to hear everything is fine once you get the results. For many, the final report from market research serves the same purpose. ”Oh good. We’re okay”. That’s primarily because many organizations use research merely to validate decisions they’ve (in reality) already made. It’s no wonder that when budgets get tight, research gets cut. Companies can delay reassurance to a better fiscal period.
Are they looking at this with the right perspective? Effective research is not an expense, nor an insurance policy. It is an investment in a future return. It surfaces an opportunity begging to be pursued, a need waiting to be satisfied. How many times have you pondered, “If only I could see into the future, I would know exactly what to do now”. How much would you pay for that ability? While proactive research is not an exact picture of the future, it is certainly a great indicator. It’s also a tremendous way to differentiate yourself from the competition (that continues to do research only to confirm their chosen path).
In my opinion, there’s really only two reasons to do market research. To determine what is, or to see what could be. The first is an expense, the second is an investment.
So how do you invest in effective research? It’s as simple as (Stephen Covey would say) starting with the end in mind.
- What is the business objective you want to achieve? (e.g. growth, product improvement, entering a new category, etc.)
- What do you need to learn to be able to achieve that objective?
- What type of research is best suited to deliver those learning goals?
It is very likely that the type of research you’ve been traditionally using (focus groups, surveys, etc.) are not the best tools for new discovery. They are better suited for understanding the current state of things. You may need to step out of the research comfort zone to really gain the learning that can direct your future.
So go ahead. Get that medical check-up you’ve been putting off. But invest in research that can help you to create your business future, not just respond to it.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the greatest television detective of all time was Columbo. Unwary suspects would write him off as an idiot, never realizing that with each “goofy question” he was actually coming closer to collaring them as the killer. It occurred to me recently that interviewing consumers in the context of their home or office is really not much different than the styles depicted in this classic tv show. We will get no better results asking a person “What new product would you like to see on the market”, than the detective would get by asking “Did you kill this person”?. While consumers are not trying to mislead us, they are just not capable of answering some questions.
Think about Columbo’s style. He would take in his surroundings. He would look for contradictions. He would follow his instinct and test notions that he came up with. Successfully getting the Voice of the Consumer should include all of these same tactics. You won’t get a nugget of truth by following a rigid script, nor through sheer repetition from one consumer to the next. You gain true insights by following leads wherever they take you. That is why talking with consumers in context is so critical. In a focus group, you can only rely on what you hear. When in a home, you can compare what you hear with what you are seeing. If there is conflict, it is time to probe. It is often in the resolution of the conflict that true learning occurs.
Don’t be afraid to go Columbo the next time you are seeking information. Who cares if the interviewee thinks you’re an idiot? At a minimum, that will put them at ease since they won’t feel like you are judging or evaluating them in any way. And most likely, it will surface key information that can help you develop successful new products or services.
How often do we claim to have seen something when we actually haven’t? I’m not talking about intentional deceit… It’s really more about self-deception. We all “observe” things everyday, but what we actually take in is what our mind filters and allows us to absorb. I came across a video that illustrates this point beautifully. Watch it below:
How many times have we all done this? We’re told to focus on something (in this case the map) and we do so to the exclusion of all else around us. Some of the examples in this video were extreme, but few people actually caught on. I talk about the importance of gaining consumer understanding through observation. Many people feel they can do this very naturally with no training or experience. The question I would have is this… Are they really seeing what’s going on around them, or are they only seeing what they’ve been specifically directed toward? If your goal is to learn about consumers through observation, then you really need to make sure that you can take in as much as possible, and not miss the big opportunity as you focus on something less significant.
Companies seem to fall into one of two distinct categories; those that don’t research anything and those that research everything. I’m a huge believer in understanding your targeted consumer and developing products and services that satisfy needs that they might have. Having said that, once you have an appreciation for that consumer, I don’t believe you have to research every future idea to gauge acceptance. Sometimes a good idea is simply… a good idea.
I was talking with a company the other day that has a concept that can combine a couple of existing products at retail. This would allow them to better utilize the space allocated to their product lines, maybe even for the purpose of showcasing some cool new products they have coming out. The idea would reduce inventory, carrying costs and obsolescence in addition to simplifying the purchase process for the consumer. Where’s the risk in that?
And yet, they want to run this idea past consumers to make sure that is is something that would be desirable. The reality is, there is minimal benefit to the consumer in the idea itself. It will be very hard to get the type of “sound bites” they typically desire from VOC research to help them justify the project. In fact, to run this idea past consumers without having a working prototype is high risk. If the consumer can’t mentally “engineer” or envision the product, they might anticipate all types of problems and issues (which won’t in reality exist) and turn negative on the idea. When a company that traditionally values research has negative input to an idea, it is very hard to move forward.
The key is to understand the actual risks for a given idea. Not every idea has to be focused on meeting a specific consumer need. Many ideas are targeted toward reducing cost and complexity. If this is the case, the key to success is really in the design and the execution of the concept. Spend your money on research that can help you truly innovate your future! Continue reading