The Voice of the Customer – How Market Research Leads to Product Success

What is the best way to truly understand your customers’ needs? That’s right, just ask them. It seems simple enough, however many companies and product development teams omit this vital step in the process.

Why Is Research So Vital?

For the companies who engage in market research the findings are invaluable. The information captured during research exposes consumers’ likes and dislikes of a product and its features. It gives a glimpse of the future of a product or category and often generates new concept direction. Research gives the design team a look into the consumers’ mind and an opportunity to tweak designs to compare one against the other until the final design is exactly what the consumer wants and the price he is willing to pay. Compare it to an eye exam. As the doctor flips the lens, the patient tells him which is better. The same applies to product research, giving the designer the best opportunity to hit a homerun.

In addition to capturing the emotional and behavioral response of a product, research can also raise a red flag when you are heading in the wrong direction. For example, if focus groups of parents tell you they will not pay $100 for a certain type of toy as it is presented; you can almost guarantee that it will fail on the market if you ignore their warnings. This finding is certainly invaluable when you compare the cost of re-evaluating the product to the cost of failing in the market place.

As markets and consumer expectations change, knowing who your customer is and how they spend their money becomes more and more important. And, just when you think you know who the customer is and what they need or want, it changes. Research gives strong evidence of who the customer is and how to best reach them. More importantly, when used over a period of time, trends and market changes can become more easily identified. Analyzing the history of the research also reminds the team how the consumer and the product have changed over its lifecycle, which may lead to new areas of interest for future product development.

As consumers have become more savvy, so have retail buyers. They have come to expect companies to perform due diligence as proof that a new concept, category or design will be successful. The most effective way to do this is to present the new product through the eyes of the consumer, through market research. Without this, you must rely on cold statistics, studies and your “gut feel”.

In addition, rising product liability concerns have increased the need for product research. Understanding how users interact with products and the assembly, use and misuse of products has quickly become an important effort in liability consideration. Fortunately, liability concerns can often be seamlessly tied into many research methods, allowing companies to gather demographic, preference, market, trend and liability data with the same research program.

Types of Market Research

Market research can be very flexible, based on project needs and budget. There are several research methods that can be used throughout the product development process.

Focus groups

Focus groups typically consist of a group of participants and a moderator. The moderator asks the group questions to begin interactive dialogue. This research method is an excellent way to learn why people make the choices they do. The group dynamics often leads to uncovering new ideas and unidentified needs.

Mall Intercepts and Surveys

While focus groups concentrate on the “whys”, surveys focus on “what proportion”. Surveys can be implemented as a mall intercept, where consumers are individually interviewed in a mall or retail establishment, by telephone or through an online survey. All of these methods can successfully gather quantitative information quickly and accurately, however due to intellectual property concerns, care should be taken when using online surveys to gain opinions on concept sketches, etc.

Observation Studies

Observation research studies, a less formal research method, add a unique perspective to how consumers interact with products. By simply watching consumers interact with products in stores, you can gain great insight into their preferences and how products compete on the retail shelf.

Trend Research

Trend research should be considered during the brainstorming and concept phases of the product development process. Trend research often results in new category development and unexpected product applications. This is exactly how a new version of a classic themed product became a best seller at Target. While the Catalyst design team worked to address consumer assembly issues of an item currently in the market, they identified a niche opportunity that was a perfect fit for their client. After recognizing a grass roots affection for a nostalgic stool design, the team presented the idea of re-introducing the stool design to the client’s marketing team, but with modern improvements for the mass market. Just like that, Catalyst had identified an opportunity that became hugely successful simply by taken the unbeaten path during trend research. This type of research can include things like internet research, retail audits, industry and non-industry related trade shows or other events to name a few.

Choosing the Research Team

The people included in the research team can range from corporate level management to marketing assistants. Market research companies may also be included for the design, facilitation and data analysis of the program. However, for product specific research, studies show that the inclusion of product designers (internal or external) plays a valuable role for several reasons.

First, designers view the world from a unique perspective. They can often capture and sketch participants’ ideas on the spot for clarification. This is particularly valuable when weeding out product concepts or brainstorming new concepts.

Second, a strong designer takes personal ownership in his designs. Since designers are intimate with the product, they offer valuable input on things like questions that are asked and what type or how many concepts should be included in the research. In addition, the design team may need feedback in areas that other members of the team may not consider as valuable. Designers want to understand customer needs and expectations, but in order to do that, they need to see and hear the participants’ feedback first hand. Both positive and negative feedback challenge the design team to see their concepts through the eyes of the consumer. It challenges them to dig deeper into their design not only to meet consumer expectations, but to exceed them.

The few product development companies who understand the importance and value that research adds to the product development process actually integrate market research services into their process. While careful not to let the market research consume the team, budget and timeline, they and their clients often rely on research results to validate concept direction, cost/value clarification and feature/benefit preference.

As odd as it may sound, market research results are often considered among the list of “authorities” during the decision-making process, especially since research results should be reviewed by non-linear disciplines within the group. Consider this example: marketing team members will tune into cost/value comments and suggestions while product designers will most likely focus on ergonomic/style feedback. At the same time, engineering representatives will weigh fit and function comments more heavily than others. Relying on only one of these interpretations is short-sided, leaving significant opportunity on the table. It is the combination of these perspectives and the pure, honest consumer feedback that helps companies determine product direction with confidence.

Market Research Leads to Product Success

The inclusion of market research in the product development process can often make the difference between success and failure. Rather than assuming the team has all of the answers, engaging in one or more of these research methods can confirm your position, raise a red flag to a potential issue, identify a new opportunity, validate cost versus value or give them a new perspective on how their product is used and perceived in the marketplace. Market research increases the opportunity for success by removing all of the guess work and understanding your customers’ wants, needs and expectations simply by asking them!

Productive Online Business – 5 Best Ways to Online Business

The rise of the internet has opened so many opportunities for entrepreneurs who are targeting the global market. Today, buying and selling of goods cannot get easier as long as you are connected to the World Wide Web. If you intend to go online, these 5 best ways to online business can greatly help you out:

1. Break away from stiff competition. There are certain niches that are highly saturated and penetrating them is virtually next to impossible. If you would like to sell, you need to target the untargeted. Research other niches that are not yet tapped by other online entrepreneurs and identify their needs. You can then sell products that they require to earn profits. Since these niches have few competitions, you have higher chances of making a sale.

2. Lay your business plans. After identifying your target market, you need to create a strong business plan that will lay out all your tasks in growing your business. This will serve as your ultimate guide not only in selling your products but also in achieving your short and long term goals.

3. Pick the best ecommerce software. Choose the one that offers the features that you need and meet all your business requirements. In addition, it is important that it is easy to use and it must allow customization.

4. Set up your own website. Create your space in the World Wide Web. You can use this to showcase your products and facilitate your sales transactions. To maximize its benefits and to increase your sales, you should know how to drive traffic to it. The recommended methods are SEO, link building, PPC advertising, article marketing, forum posting, and article writing.

5. Offer freebies and discounts every once in a while. Let your customers know that you value them and the business they provide you. Throw away freebies or give them price breaks to promote customer loyalty.

Setting Up a Network of Action Research to Overcome Systemic and Cultural Issues

The world is changing faster than systems can keep up. This is seen in business, industry, education, health care, banking etc. The basic problem faced by managers is much the same across all of these ways of doing business: the owners and managers believe they see where the company needs to move but have difficulty explaining or motivating current staff to make the necessary changes. Sometimes management are up against cultural issues, and while they fully understand since they also come from those cultures, it is even more difficult because the change goes to the very fiber of their countries or ideals and yet are necessary if their organization is to survive. An example of this is seen in education in the Arab world where spokespeople such as her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince H.H. Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain actively pursue a dramatic change in education away from graduates who want and expect the government to hire them and to take care of them for the rest of their lives as has been the case for a very long time. In much of the world the government has always been the best employer and now economic pressures insist on a change to an entrepreneurial society, one that creates economic growth in the new knowledge based economic environment. Using this example, we see several complex layers of issues that need to be tackled simultaneously in order to bring about systemic change. These layers include:

  1. producing a cultural mind shift from being taken care of by the government to fast-paced entrepreneurial endeavors
  2. encouraging a shift from seeking only safety to being willing to take risks
  3. needing to incorporate the “soft” skills required in modern business into the standard curriculum
  4. providing professional development for teachers so that they can model these new skills, ones that they don’t currently have or understand
  5. finding the time to release all the staff for this training and this retooling while still continuing the work that is going on
  6. finding a way so that the change is embraced by the people rather than engendering resentment

As is true with most complex issues, facing these issues directly makes many experienced leaders and managers quail under the likelihood of potential failure. We have all seen reform efforts gone bad. Every new idea that does not get implemented properly, leaves behind it a residue of resentment and skepticism, eventually souring the entire culture of our working world. Many Western environments have seen this already, with employee morale dropping dramatically and productivity coming to a halt upon announcement of mergers, reorganization, etc.

The good news is that networked participatory action research (PAR) can overcome many, if not all, of these challenges. This article lays out the general format that can be used by leadership, in tandem with a good PAR facilitation, to develop teams of staff who will study the issues and develop solutions, taking ownership of the changes required by the complex situation rather than subtlety opposing all change.

How do you begin? The first step for management is to work what personal incentives can be used to encourage people to take on the extra work that is being asked of them. This is a common problem for businesses, nonprofits, and public administrators, who generally expect that this kind of work should just be done under the normal auspices of a person’s employment. We have found that incentives bring success and without them complex reforms of this nature are much more likely to experience a failure rate of somewhere around 50%. Here’s why. This PAR process will require that these teams work outside of their normal business day to gather data, have meetings to discuss actions and measurement, implement new steps, and measure their success. Consider them pilot projects in each of your major hubs of activity. If you were paying consultants to work out a pilot for you, you would pay them. In this case your own staff should be treated with the same respect you would give those consultants. The change in their attitude will seem remarkable. When you are asking them to step up as experts in what they do and help you redesign their own working environment to better meet the needs of outside pressures to change, to pilot new ideas, and you show them respect by paying them extra for their extra work, they are much more likely to give it their full attention.

What are you asking them to do? To participate regularly in an action research project and to write up the results in a final report that will be available to you for publication. This involves a discovery cycle where they analyze what needs to change in order to make your vision come true, present ideas as to which steps can be taken and measure the outcomes of those first steps, and then to come back and reflect with you on what they are finding. This will then start another round of discovery, measurable action, and reflection, a process which continues until you see real and sustainable change. In this manner they will take ownership of the changes you need them to make, feel transformed in their new roles, and, over time, you will be amazed at how much can be done, and what positive attitudes will develop. The requirement for a final report is a necessary capstone to this kind of change process. We have found that the two elements that create success are the incentives and the requirement for a final report that will be published. The first shows respect, the second sets a high professional standard.

What is the structure and timetable of this activity? Picture a central hub, with smaller circles attached to it through lines, and more lines making a web between the smaller circles. That is the general design of networked participatory action research to address complex change. First, small working groups are formed in each of the hubs of activity that need to address the change. For instance in education, you would bring together working teams that included Principals and key teachers from schools where the reform needed to be put in action. In business, the decisions of the online on where the reform needs to be put in action. So, if you’re strategic plan requires a retooling in some fashion across several working groups, you ask the heads of those working groups to select two or three partners and they form what we will call the local participatory action team.

Once these small teams are formed, (becoming the smaller circles in our imaginary diagram) you bring them together on a regular basis, facilitate their understanding of action research, their understanding of the challenges your wider organization faces, and what is expected of their individual subgroups. Then their team goes back to their area and proceedings with a cycle of action research. This includes discovering what is the currently in the way of the change and measuring it. Then they come back to the hub for another day’s work as you facilitate their next steps which include designing and planning the implementation that will begin to create the change you desire. Because they are held to a standard that requires later reporting, each step along the way as measured, and as the process continues as they grow in their professional understanding of the scientific approach to problem solving and change.

The timetable starts with management assigning the work to their managers and the managers choosing their teams, then these teams or hubs of activity come together with the facilitator to learn about action research and to plan the rest of the change effort. The will be meeting as a larger group for one full day about every two months for approximately one year after the first meeting. In total, and including initial planning and final celebration, the facilitated group meets for 8 – 10 working days. The teams will put in about three times that much effort in their local context. We have studied groups using this design and have found consistently transformational results – both from the teams in the hubs of activity and in the total organization as a whole. Generally a year of facilitated activity and another year where the people involved in the initial teams disseminate what they have learned and engender change in their local environments will demonstrate remarkable differences. The following quotes participants at the end of this design demonstrate the results you might expect in your organization.

The cycles of participatory action research have certainly given us exciting results. Motivation in our organization is an ongoing research topic, and we realize that we have a duty to pass on this information to the entire community. We all need to raise our expectations as to our ability to achieve better results, but we have proven to ourselves that we are up to the task.

The action research process has pushed all of us to continue to refine our practice of acquiring usable information. As we went through this cyclical process, we gained clarity on the data needed to be most helpful to those we work with and our employers. Everyone assisted by seeking information and we created an environment where all were successful. The process supported us and caused us to grow beyond out wildest dreams. While at time frustrating, it also creates an effective model for successful implementation of change.

Future articles will discuss the facilitation issues and other specifics of the design.

Group Facilitation: What Factors Are Controlled to Nurture Efficiency?

A team of employees brought together to achieve a goal, resolve conflicts, or make important decisions is group facilitation. Facilitators are in charge of ensuring the productive flow of a meeting. They make certain the meeting flows, has an agenda, and keep the group on track and disrupt arguments by interjecting when necessary. This individual manages the discussion while remaining neutral to assist the participants in reaching an understandable and well-researched decision. A group facilitator is not the same as a team leader or company executive because their experience is given strictly in an objective manner to aid in the progress of the discussion. A facilitator is in charge of:

  • Keeping Everyone Focused
  • Unlocking Creativity or Expertise
  • Making Certain Items are Discussed Thoroughly
  • Helping the Participants Reach Better Decisions
  • Resolving Issues or Accomplishing Objectives

Facilitators have precise techniques that are designed to promote participation and positivity during the meeting. Telling individuals assigned to a group that they must do something does not automatically provide good results. Personalities have to be balanced in order to create an environment where ideas are pondered rather than rejected. Facilitators are trained to maintain the environment necessary to reach a productive outcome.

How Does a Group Facilitator Maintain the Right Atmosphere?

A group facilitator focuses on what can be done to help participants work together and reach a common goal. They guide the team through each agenda and monitor what goes on to put everyone’s skills to the best use. This addition allows a team to be highly successful and supplies improved results at a much faster pace. An effective organizer will have these qualities:

  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Proactive Nature
  • Responsiveness
  • Resilience

Group facilitation requires an individual to be capable of modifying activities prior to and during a session. They should be able to change activities based on the observed characteristics of participants. Experts remain neutral while taking steps to prevent extreme tensions or frustrations from affecting productivity.

Six tensions typically arise during a team-based meeting and can drastically affect progress if they are not handled correctly. The following tensions enhance a meeting when managed efficiently by a group facilitator:

  • Structure
  • Pace
  • Interaction
  • Focus
  • Concern
  • Control

The structure of a meeting can range from tight to loose in regards to how the rules are laid out. An extremely tight structure involves defining rules before the process starts whereas rules are defined as the discussion progresses in a loose meeting. Group facilitation experts manage the interaction between participants ranging from cooperative to competitive environments. Focus can be process driven, result driven, or remain neutral with concern ranging from a more individual approach to the group as a whole. A facilitator will take an unobtrusive role if a team must decide on what actions or objectives offer the most value. They sometimes take a neutral, consulting, leadership, or background role based on the objectives that need to be met. Professionals must be capable of balancing every tension to create the most productive atmosphere and guarantee positive results.