Consumer research sometimes gets a bad rap publicly. Think focus groups being observed through one-way mirrors or researchers with clipboards firing off an endless barrage of questions. Its demand on resources can be enormous. Consumer research might even lead teams down the path towards developing a better iron lung instead of the polio vaccine. Nevertheless, if you find yourself asking “What do my consumers want?” conducting consumer research can provide valuable insight.
What is consumer research?
Before we dig into the value that consumer research can provide, we should define it. Let’s start with the “research” part. People often use the terms “research” and “testing” interchangeably, but these activities are distinct. Both research and testing can empower teams with greater understanding. But they’re performed at different times in order to serve different purposes. Research should be conducted before a solution is crafted in order to inform the team about things like market demand and requirements. Testing should happen during and after solution development in order to validate the solution to ensure that it’s right for users.
And there are multiple kinds of research, which can be another point of confusion. For example, you might ask, “Our consumers are our users… so is consumer research the same thing as user research?” No. And both are different from market research. Let’s break this distinction down, too. Market research is about understanding the size and scope of the problem, the solutions that are already out there, and the financial implications of bringing a new solution into the mix. Consumer research is about understanding how eager consumers are to address the problem, why they buy solutions, what they’re looking for, and what might get them to switch from their current solution. User research is about understanding how the solution works and how people engage with it—in both anticipated and unanticipated ways.
So consumer research helps teams understand how severe the problem is for buyers, why they buy, and what might entice them to switch—all before they begin to design the solution. Consumer research can and should include both qualitative data. Stories, testimonials, and anecdotes from real or potential customers are a great complement to hard metrics about buyers’ opinions and spending habits.
The pros and cons of consumer research
A quick survey of markets and product owners will reveal two schools of thought on consumer research: For and Against.
Research conducted in the 1970s led to the coining of the term false-consensus effect. It means that we tend to overestimate how many other people share our opinions and judgments. Product teams who fall prey to the false-consensus effect may assume that because they like something, everyone else will too. And in making this assumption, they may end up designing so-called “solutions” that don’t actually solve the real problem.
As many experts and organizations will tell you, consumer research is an invaluable tool for breaking free from this biased mindset. It can help you to really understand your buyer, get out of your bubble, and challenge your assumptions. consumer research can spur innovation. It may even alert you to shifts and trends more quickly than analysts can prepare reports. And perhaps most importantly, conducting consumer research can uncover unexpected insights. For example, you know that customers appreciate your brand’s commitment to the quality and selection of products you provide—but did you know that their top priority is speed?
But while some view consumer research as liberating, others view it as stifling creativity by limiting the possibilities that companies and designers consider. Steve Jobs had a lot to say on the subject. Here’s one example:
“I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”‘ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. [. . .] Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
Jobs worried that consumer research could send product teams down misguided or unproductive paths by focusing on past performance rather than potential innovation. And still, he lead Apple to develop some incredible products (and some not-so-incredible ones) that revolutionized personal computing. Those against consumer research question the value consumer research brings when you’re trying to create something brand new.
Answer “What do my consumers want?” with four approaches:
If the viewpoints outlined above leave you somewhere in the middle, you’re not alone. Even within the same organization, marketing and product development teams debate the value of consumer research. So what’s a company to do? The four approaches below take a more balanced approach.
Approach 1: Conduct testing, not research
Some companies choose not to do research up front, but instead rely on testing to validate the product or solution once it’s been designed. Taking this approach ensures that teams are not constrained by research that might stifle their creative impulses, but that products are still vetted in advance of costly market launches.
Approach 2: Don’t ask; watch
Some product teams choose to use observational research techniques to unearth customer preferences rather than asking about them directly. With this approach, teams learn from how customers act and do things and come up with the right solution based on their understanding. Of course, there’s always the possibility that a customer’s behavior may be misinterpreted.
Approach 3: Just do a little
Perhaps you want to do consumer research, but you can’t afford a big study or can’t fit it in to your development schedule. You can limit the scope of your research—while still getting value from it—by creating research-based personas. Once you’ve developed these personas, you can use them in many different ways, from guiding product development to planning marketing content. If you’re interested in this approach, check out Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas book. It offers one of the best explanations of how to create rich, meaningful personas based on real customer data and insight.
Approach 4: Crib someone else’s research
If you want to leverage consumer research but can’t afford to conduct your own study, all is not lost. Review research findings from fields like behavioral economics, psychology, and sociology. These adjacent fields can give you a good foundational understanding of the factors that impact your industry. Reports from firms like Gartner, Forrester, and Rand can provide market-specific insights.
Use these four approaches to balance the pros and cons of consumer research and make smarter decisions for your business.