Flexing for insight

Editor’s note: Laura Troyani is research principal at Seattle market research firm PlanBeyond.

Any market research project requires building the project budget, approach and timeline. The process provides all stakeholders with visibility over where things are, and where things are headed, offering much-needed structure. 

But it is also very rigid – perhaps too rigid. 

After all, when entering into a project with big unknowns, can you accurately create structure? When faced with unknown unknowns, you simply cannot plan for all contingencies.

This is why market researchers would be best served by taking a page from the world of agile product design. Unlike the highly structured approaches most common in our field, agile approaches embrace ambiguity, learning and adjustment, allowing for more fine-tuned approaches that yield more actionable outcomes. 

The two types of project design in market research

The idea of project design originated with the waterfall approach. This approach requires project managers to define project requirements and how the project will move forward. From there, the project is executed upon with teams verifying its efficacy and then, if necessary, maintaining the process. 

It is an extraordinarily linear oversight and implementation. And as Forbes contributors Hoory and Bottorff note, it minimizes back-and-forth conversations and decision-making because process, milestones and deliverables are already established.

However, the structured approach is also one of its weaknesses. Too much structure does not allow for any flexibility. Anyone navigating more ambiguous questions needs flexibility to adapt and adjust.

This is where the agile methodology comes in. Agile design puts forth four key tenets: 

In essence, it embraces flexibility at its core, accepting that new information changes project circumstances. And, with that change, active collaboration is key to reassess and chart new paths forward. 

The implications of waterfall and agile design in market research

Let’s now bring this conversation back to the world of market research. Most research projects require some type of initial evaluation and scoping. How do you determine if the waterfall or agile approach is best? 

Use a simple question: how much do we know about the phenomenon we are studying? 

If the answer is “a lot,” use waterfall approaches. This answer means entering the project with a great deal of background and context and, therefore, a focused learning goal. Projects focused on product concept testing, pricing and package design fall into this realm. They imply an understanding of the broader category and customer which allow researchers to ask – and answer – more targeted questions. 

However, if the answer is “a little” or “not very much,” use agile approaches. Under these scenarios, market researchers enter a world of ambiguity. They need contextual foundations before digging deeper.  

Projects exploring new market categories or identifying products and services for completely new revenue streams fall into this category. A wide range of upstream research must be conducted to better understand the category and customer. Only with this knowledge in hand can subsequent research work explore microdimensions like specific products, pricing or features. 

Navigating agile design research in a fixed-cost environment

While agile market research design approaches sound appealing, they often come against an everyday reality: fixed budgets. 

Scope and budget creep are very real concerns, but they can be mitigated with careful upfront planning. 

Even open-ended research projects have guard rails. Teams know upfront the categories or customer groups they want to consider, or they may understand the environments or behaviors they want to study. 

This context lets market researchers establish parameters around what they will include in their study and therefore what they won’t include. For instance, they may decide to explore B2B and B2C audiences at the onset but ultimately choose one for further exploration. This lets market researchers understand that their learnings could take them down several paths and that they need to think through what these paths look like.

Evaluating the work effort, and the corresponding costs involved in potential paths, lets researchers develop approaches that mix and match breadth of scope, cost, and timelines. This provides a complete view of the total potential project scope and budget, with the understanding that it may be less. 

Planning for agile design requires more upfront work than classic waterfall approaches. More thought must go into assessing potential paths. Each stage in the market research project requires assessing findings to select the next path forward. But the process allows for far more informed decision-making as a result. 

Agile design in action

Let’s take a riff off of an actual client project to show agile design in process. 

A fintech company came to us with the larger business goal of finding a new product to create a new revenue stream for their business. They traditionally served a niche B2C audience. But they recognized a potential to not just continue serving this audience with new products but also expand into a B2B market. They needed a way to know which sector to serve and with what type of products.

This client context required agile market research design. We knew the end goal of product identification. However, the project started with so many unknowns across customer segments and needs that we needed upfront exploration flexibility.

Rather than pick B2B or B2C immediately, we set out to first explore how each group navigated different financial circumstances. Through diary work, we explored the way each group engaged with formal and informal financial channels to pinpoint places with the largest pain points or inefficiencies. With the findings from this qualitative work, we then re-grouped with our client. It was key to sync the research findings with their knowledge of their potential capabilities and financial technology feasibility to make a segment recommendation. 

In this particular project, the B2C audience’s particular needs mapped cleanly to how our client could evolve their technology, making them the most viable audience for further study. Because we approached the project with an agile lens, we anticipated this as one potential path, meaning we knew what subsequent steps we had to take to explore our client’s questions. 

This first started with IDIs to further explore the financial activities that surfaced during our diary phase. By incorporating a jobs-to-be-done framework to our discussion guide structure, we explored the breath of steps involved in these activities, the reasons behind those steps, and the desired outcomes of those steps. This process brought further clarity to the financial activities and the inefficiencies embedded within each one. 

From here, we held a workshop with our client to define the products they could create to directly respond to these needs. We used the process inefficiencies and customer goals uncovered during the IDIs to create benchmarks for what product success would look like. 

This took us to our last step: customer surveys. We fielded a product concept test with the breadth of products designed during the workshop, and we used the success benchmarks defined in our workshop to guide the dimensions we probed on during the survey. 

In the end, our use of agile research design afforded us the opportunity to explore an area holistically so that we could drive to a targeted end goal. Our approach left no party wondering if we should have pursued one path over the other. Rather, the iterative approach of collecting data, learning and regrouping to build consensus and define next steps led to actionable findings and a smooth overall research experience.