Volume 13, 
August, 2015


Five Practices to Revitalize Product Innovation
Watch what can happen when you give your market research organization a seat at the innovation table


Sheila Mello

You probably have a good idea about what makes product development innovative. You may already have a plan to create a culture of innovation in your development organization. But are you overlooking a key part of the business that could contribute substantially to product development innovation?

If, as do many companies, you treat market research as little more than a service organization tasked with gathering secondary data requested by product managers, then the answer is yes. Whether your market research stands alone or is part of your marketing department, inviting market researchers to share a seat at the table as part of your cross-functional product development team can add tremendous value to your innovation efforts.

Read on for ideas about how market researchers can become active contributors to product development innovation.

First things first: Prerequisites for innovation

To be truly innovative, your organization must understand two things: the strategic realm in which you’re operating and what it’s like to be a customer in that realm.

Strategy development is outside the scope of this article, so let’s look at the second part of the equation: living the life of the customer. Of course, actually living as a customer is difficult. But there are ways to paint an accurate picture of the customer’s daily life, frustrations, pet peeves, and problems—a picture that then helps you identify the white-space opportunities that engender innovation.

Methods of immersing yourself in the customer’s world include data-gathering using open-ended questions, ethnography, on-site observation, and in-depth interviewing. Some market researchers are familiar with these tools. But if your market research currently consists of collating secondary sources, organizing focus groups, or outsourcing customer surveying, you’re not taking advantage of methods that get you to the heart of your customer’s challenges.

This may be a symptom of the typical relationship between product development and marketing or market research. Too often, market research organizations begin with a hypothesis presented to them by product developers to prove or disprove. For example, a product manager at a company that makes wardrobe accessories might ask market research to find out about handbag preferences: multiple compartments or single storage areas? long adjustable or fixed-length handles? While these may be important later in the product development process, they don’t lead to the kind of new-to-the-world innovations that fill previously unarticulated customer needs. The company won’t be thinking outside the box—or, in this case, outside the handbag. 

Making the shift

A radical shift in how you view the role of market research could help uncover white-space growth opportunities that your development organization can incorporate into its product roadmap. Giving your market research organization the power—and even a mandate—to participate in open-ended investigation of what it’s like to be a customer can yield a treasure trove of potential opportunities to explore (although it may initially prove unsettling for research staff accustomed to bounded problem solving and well-defined areas of research).

Here are five things you can do to help shift your organization’s expectations of market research and make it a valuable contributor to innovation.

1. Don’t assume your current methods of interacting with customers support innovation.

Organizations tell me all the time, “We’re extremely customer focused.” When I ask what that means, I hear that CRM staff catalogues customer complaints, marketing monitors social media, and the sales force and marketing staff constantly talk to customers. That’s great—but is anyone listening to customers? Simply having conversations with customers doesn’t provide the deep dive into the customer’s world that’s required to create product and service offerings that solve unexpressed problems. (See our previous articles, Go Deep, Find Treasure and Taking the Prize for Invention for more on ensuring that you’re looking for customer challenges in the right place in the right way.)

2. Avoid through-the-glass observation.

Earlier, I mentioned focus groups and surveys as inadequate methods of immersing yourself in the customer’s world. That’s because these methods lack a few key features that give you the ability to feel and connect deeply with a customer’s pain. Focus groups take customers out of their natural environments and ask them to respond intellectually to questions. Furthermore, answering questions in the presence of colleagues may inhibit them from sharing what they are actually thinking. Surveys provide no opportunity for probing questions or follow-up. I’m not suggesting you never use these methods, simply that they’re not well suited to open-ended exploration.  

3. Understand that passion trumps expertise.

Ideally, you’ll explore the customer’s world with a cross-functional team that includes not only product developers but marketers, quality engineers, manufacturing, and even customer service. But too often, marketing (and by extension, market research) gets involved in exploring customer needs by handing the task off to an outside organization.

The justification for this hand-off is often something along the lines of “We’re not professionals. We don’t have the expertise to conduct in-depth interviews on site with customers. What if we don’t ask the right questions? What if we miss an area to follow up on?”

The response to this justification? It doesn’t matter. It’s better to have the entire cross-functional team involved—including market research—because that’s the only way to generate the fire that feeds innovation. There’s no substitute for hearing customer stories directly and going through the process of extracting those stories and turning them into requirements. That’s worth more than the down side of making a few mistakes. Besides, your team will quickly improve.

4. Don’t confuse the tools of innovation with innovation itself.

To some, bringing innovation to market research might mean taking advantage of bleeding edge technologies: gamification, artificial intelligence, visualization, biometrics, neuromarketing, and virtual reality. New methods of gathering information about what consumers are thinking and feeling are dazzling and exciting, so it’s easy to mistake the tools themselves for innovations.

But even if you could harvest data directly from customers’ brains, you still would need to know what to do with the data. To support innovation, you need a framework for turning the raw data you gather into information you can act on. Tools such image diagrams are not necessarily new and exciting but give you a way to make sense of what you hear from customers. Translating what the customer said into actionable customer requirements is the other important part of supporting innovation. It may not be as sexy as something like neuromarketing, but digging deeply into the transcripts of customer interviews to find out what unsolved problems exist in the customer’s daily life is where the opportunity for true innovation lies.   

5. Align your risk/reward structure with the results you want.

Human nature being what it is, you’re likely to face inertia, resistance, and caution in the face of any change. And suggesting that market research have a seat at the table in product innovation can represent a big change. Market researchers may want to stick to what they learned in school or at their previous companies. They may feel uncomfortable taking the lead on this kind of customer inquiry. If your organization rewards caution, you’ll find it difficult to pry people from past ways of doing things. And if people fear retribution for failure, they won’t be inclined to experiment or propose alternatives. So you’ll need managers on board to make sure that your culture of innovation extends to supporting an expanded role for market research.

Get more from your research

I have certainly seen companies without a dedicated market research group undertake many of the approaches to product development innovation described here. But shifting your thinking—and putting in place a structure that encourages market researchers and product developers to shift their thinking—about the role of market research could mean the difference between a market research organization delivering ho-hum results and one that plays a vital part in your company’s competitive position.

How does market research contribute to innovation at your organization? Let us know below or on our LinkedIn page.

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