Editor’s note: Sean Bisceglia is CEO of research firm Curion, Chicago.  

 As COVID-19 spreads across the country and consumers are urged to remain inside, product testing has been forced to go solely digital. As a result, companies are now heralding digital testing as a premier offering. Necessity, however, does not discount years of research on the multi-layered formula for compiling comprehensive product insight. This conversation is not novel, and our present set of circumstances will not change the result. As Apekshita Varshney writes in an article for Techweek, “It [digital testing] battles strong resistance from big data supporters and its own inefficiencies in collection, integration, analysis and above all, utilization of the human ‘element’ which is always open to interpretation.” Though digital testing is a viable temporary solution, online research alone lacks the capacity to become the new normal.   

In quarantine, social, emotional and intellectual connections with others has physically dissipated and migrated to the internet. Social media usage is skyrocketing, Gen Z seeks stardom on TikTok, and basic forms of in-person human interaction are a threat. Through it all, a heavy and undeniable fact hangs thick in the air: we will never experience the same level of candid humanity, organic connection or raw sense of community through the lenses of a webcam as we would when connecting in-person. Similarly, when we return to some version of normalcy, digital testing will not replace the sensory research methods needed to understand the consumer to product relationships.  

Though current times necessitate a heavier reliance on online testing, when consumers can go about their lives as normal (not to be confused with new normal), fully developed consumer insights will be almost as scarce as toilet paper. 

In-person vs. online research

The wide range of in-person research methods, including benchmarking, discrimination testing, category appraisals, qualitative descriptive analysis, focus groups and in-context, form the foundation of a multi-faceted consumer product understanding. 

Online research uncovers its own distinctive set of insights but has mostly been used as complementary to more traditional methods of in-person research. Insights produced from digital testing and in-person testing provide data from different psychological angles and internal and external variables. Online testing lacks the ability to capture the whole story simply because the spectrum of psychological factors is too limited to fully bring products to fruition. To confidently go to market, companies must understand their product from every perspective. 

Imagine this: pre-COVID-19, you walk into your gym a bit hungry but feeling motivated to exercise. A stand is giving out free protein bars, so you eat one. Throughout your workout, the protein bar keeps you feeling full, satisfied and energized. After you leave the gym, you note the snack helped fuel you through your workout.

Now imagine the online version: you’re testing the protein bar at home. You sit in your office chair in front of your webcam and eat the protein bar. After about 10 minutes, you start feeling lethargic and heavy. You make a note on your recorded video or mention it to your proctor on your video call. 

An opinion piece featured on Frontiers in Psychology states, “In an online context, consumer responses are no longer dependent on the physical environment while at the same time entirely new factors come into play such as the device through which consumers interact.” In-person and online testing involve completely different sets of consumer mind-sets and are therefore impossible to compare. Sole reliance on online research will forgo salient pieces to the consumer insights puzzle.  

Predictions for consumer insights post-pandemic

Just as consumers’ new video call-dominated existence will never replace catching up at a cafe with their friends, online testing will never replace in-person research. Once consumers can safely leave their quarantines, demand for product insights will exponentially increase as companies grasp to understand a shifted market. In-person research will be more necessary than ever to provide the missing pieces that will round out and complete the product insights picture.

As consumer insight companies depend on online research, online testing may play a more prominent role in product testing after life returns to normal. Regardless of any variance in the online to in-person research ratio, the consumer insights industry will rely on the return of in-person testing to fully inform and empower companies to confidently approach the future. Though many aspects of life will change, the role of in-person testing within the consumer insights industry will not be one of them.