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Consumer Currency in Behavioural Research

A raft of research and design processes is being developed to react to the ever-increasing demands of new product development. David Humphries proposes the need for 'co-development' with consumers.

The measure of a new product’s effectiveness is being qualified in terms of added customer value. How do we add value to new products or services when so much is changing all around us? The pressures on brand manufacturers to get their product ‘right first time’ and delivered on time are enormous.

One way that is rapidly gaining appeal is to involve the consumer directly as a co-developer in the continuous cycle of product development.

A major challenge in improving new product speed to revenue is the so-called ‘fuzzy front-end’ of the innovation process. Although it is possible to deliver a ‘right first time’ engineering solution ? if the marketing model is flawed then all the downstream activity is misdirected. Product innovation should not be conducted in a consumer/end user vacuum. Designers need to understand intimately the people, their needs, motivations and aspirations in order to suggest valued solutions.

The key questions remain but are increasingly difficult to access in time:

  • How are end user needs evolving and why?
  • How does this vary globally and locally?

More than ever, innovative companies are using new techniques to help add clarity at the earliest stage by getting closer to their customers and understanding what’s changing and why. Significant among these has been the introduction of behavioural research techniques drawn from psychology and the social sciences to help bridge the space between end users and creators of products.

The output of conventional qualitative market research techniques seldom gets close enough to latent needs and the future. In addition, the timing and structure puts words, interpretation and third parties between the designer and the end user. Rarely does traditional research serve to stimulate innovations that fall beyond the end-users frame of reference.

Empathy with consumers

Behavioural research is about understanding the perceived and actual responses of real people making real decisions in real settings.

Naturalistic observations of members of the public, customers and shoppers enable the deconstruction of everyday events and actions that delight, satisfy, annoy, etc., the end user. This allows the investigation of attributes, features and qualities which people respond to, in the context where the product is used.

Video cameras are used as a tool to capture real-life situations, and as a tool for analysing them subsequently. Researchers ‘live’ with consumers in their homes; join professional work groups and shoppers in stores. In this way naturalistic insight into user attitudes and behaviour can be gained and shared with team members through the video medium.

Subsequent analysis with multi-skill teams, including designers, engineers and brand specialists, help establish where innovation focus would best be directed.

Importantly, buying decision-making can be studied. In particular, barriers to purchase can be identified: how people make choices and why they almost buy a product, then opt for something different at the last minute. This approach allows behaviour modelling to map attributes which people respond to when thinking about, selecting and purchasing products.

Successive households are studied in this way. The data is analysed to provide tangible insights that often fall beyond the user frames of perception that, in turn, help to develop products that pluck the necessary emotional and rational chords to stimulate a decision to buy. Behavioural observation techniques are uncovering what is important to consumers in a way that allows real time feedback to guide marketing and new product development teams early enough to make a real difference.

Step in the right direction

As an example Clarks, the international shoe brand, has taken extreme steps to ensure that its consumers get what they really want. Using behavioural observation techniques, the development team accompanied walkers and their boots on hikes across hill and fell ? with the consumer as co-developer.

Clarks new product manager Chris Towns says: "Clarks needed to understand the buying habits, end use, and expectations of a new group of consumer. Understanding hill walker motivations can only be guessed at from the confines of your own office! The results were astonishing. The consumer wasn’t using the product as first thought but had adapted the functionality to suit their needs. This kind of information proved to be invaluable."

The moral of this story is that you can ask consumers what they think and say they do, but the truth of what they actually do can best be obtained by observing real life ? in context ? as well, of course, as talking to them.

The Future

As consumers become more discerning and individualistic, the demand for new products, fuelled by faster development cycles and lower production costs, will only increase. Designers and brand manufacturers will have to invest in new techniques and evolve their processes or be left behind....

The consumer can now be embraced as an active co-developer in the innovation process. This means that all the current partners in the development process ? designers, engineers, researchers, consumers and brand specialists ? have an opportunity to seek out and ‘co-author’ designs by contributing to the discovery and delivery of customer value from the earliest stage.


David Humphries
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001