Knowing your target consumer inside and out is essential to designing winning products and crafting meaningful communications. Breakthroughs come from understanding their needs, values, and aspirations, their level of category engagement, any real or perceived barriers, and the overall experience they desire. But pulling out these deeper, game-changing insights is tough. In traditional interviews, focus groups, and surveys, the left brain often overtakes the right, making it difficult for consumers to recognize, let alone express, the benefits and experiences they seek beyond the purely functional.
In my 32 years in Products Research at Procter & Gamble, getting to these “aha moments” of discovery is the challenge I faced most often, but the one I most enjoyed tackling! Here are some of my favorite qualitative research exercises for extracting deeper, more meaningful consumer insights.
- Product Scavenger Hunt. This is a fun way to capture design requirements, product stories, visual cues, and even design metaphors. Respondents are given a “homework” assignment to complete before arriving at the research facility: collect examples (physical or images) that demonstrate the benefits you want to learn more about: best viscous liquid packages, best ways to dispense a product, best “enviro-defense” product, best cleaning products, the last product that made you change your routine, etc. During the session, respondents share their examples. The moderator probes to determine why they selected it, what they like/don’t like, what tells them it’s delivering the benefit, etc. Afterwards, the research team evaluates the full range of products brought in for design elements that may not have been articulated during the session.
- Multi-sensory Idea Explosion. This is a mini-workshop that requires a bit of preparation but can really bring an idea to life. And it’s a lot of fun for the participants! The basic premise is to create a series of “design boards” for the concepts under exploration, similar to the boards interior designers use to present room designs. It’s a great way to visualize holistic design requirements (ideal product characteristics) and for concept/story/metaphor language development. Here’s how it works. Set up 5-6 stations, each stocked with different creative stimuli: flavors, sounds (music), materials (fabrics, different plastics), poetry (use word magnets), visuals/pictures, paint color chips, etc. Group participants into 4-6 teams and give them each a different prompt related to the potential benefits of the product you are developing (i.e. look better, feel better, easier to use, etc.). Teams move from station to station every 5-7 minutes, adding elements to create a design board reflecting their interpretation of the concept prompt.
When the rotations are finished, each team presents their board to the full group. Record the words/story used to describe it. After the presentations, everyone votes for their favorite boards…be sure to give each person at least 2 votes so they can vote for at least one other board than their own! I’ve also used this technique with project team members and target consumers working together.
- Experiential Evaluation via Task Deconstruction. This is a two-part, observation-focused tool that helps you understand unmet and/or unarticulated needs and compensating behaviors, as well as identify design requirements. The goal is to understand the product task step-by-step and the consumer’s perceptions at each point. It starts with observational in-situ research to learn the task details. For example, when applying lotion: pick bottle up, open cap, dispense product into hand, put bottle down, close bottle, smooth on product, etc.
In phase 2, the moderator asks respondents to describe the impact on each of their five senses at each major step (i.e. what does picking up the bottle feel, smell, and sound like). If one sense seems totally irrelevant, replace it with “emotional feel” instead. It’s best to do this while the respondent is actually going through the process. Ask for sensory descriptions while they demonstrate the task. Capture everything they say! I’ve used a “star” visual to record the description of each sense, since there are five points: sound, touch, taste, sight, smell. It sounds a bit odd, but through this process, I learned what a topical cooling product should taste like (drove fragrance selection and product color) and what a dispensing cap closure should sound like (drove cap design requirements).
- Personification. This is a fast, fun, creative exercise to understand brand or product differentiation, explain trial barriers, identify potential product/category adjacencies, or provide basic consumer insight. Respondents are asked to describe product or brand X as if it were a person: their personality, the type of car they drive, the clothes they wear, the movies they see, the job they have, the hobbies they enjoy, where they shop, what others products/brands they use, etc. It is helpful to do this in comparison with another brand or product. The end result is a differentiated “portrait” of the brand or product in question.
- Story telling. Everyone can tell a story; we do it all the time. (“Let me tell you what happened on the way to work…”) In-depth analysis of stories can identify unarticulated needs and deep consumer insights. Participants are asked to create a children’s picture book using images pulled from magazines and glued to a poster board. Like every story, it must have a title, beginning, middle, and end. You provide the story prompt: “Tell me the story of your feelings about skin care-yesterday, today, and tomorrow”, or “Tell me two stories: one about your best hair day and one about your worst hair day.” Have lots of different kinds of magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and markers. (It will feel very much like kindergarten!) Allow 15 -20 minutes for them to create their story. Each respondent then tells their story without interruption. The moderator captures every word for later analysis, then probes for clarification, if needed. (i.e. “You didn’t mention this picture in your story...” or, “I’m not sure I understand what you meant by this word/phrase”.) When the sessions are finished, review the stories for common themes, insights, needs, patterns, etc. Some analytic methods I’ve used include dream interpretation, search for metaphors and archetypes, use of emotional language, visual story arc, and tensions between words and visuals. I always tell folks, “For every hour of stories, plan on two hours of in-depth analysis and synthesis!”
The better you know your target, the better the chance you will delight them and exceed their expectations. If you are having trouble reaching the level of understanding you need for breakthrough innovation, try one of these approaches. They’ve worked for me, and they are fun for everyone involved.
About Patricia (Pat) West Doyle: Pat is an expert in insight discovery and technical brand building. During her 32 years with P&G, she specialized in Franchise Products Research and achieved the level of Research Fellow. Since retiring in 2014, Pat consults through YourEncore, has vigorously explored retirement transition success, and has become a Certified Retirement Coach.