Consumers Insights: It’s All About Sifting And Scavenging for Them

By Shrinath V|22nd Oct 2012
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‘If I asked consumers what they want, they would have asked for a faster horse!’ – Henry Ford

‘It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want next’ – Steve Jobs.


Consumer research has been bad-mouthed by some of the most revered business leaders. It’s easy to believe that in order to make good products; you only need smart ideas and good execution. The market will lap up your product or service.Reality is that consumers make the choice on whether they pay for your product or not. If it doesn’t feel right, they won’t buy or use it, no matter how elegant or smart the solution is. Consumers have their own habits and comfort zones. You don’t want to build a great product or service that no one wants to use.

This is where understanding the consumer better will help. Again, consumer research is often misused.

In larger companies, managers often commission research only to cover their backsides when taking a risky decision on product viability. It is used to blunt the downside of risk – “Hey, consumers told us they want this. I just did my job!”

In risk-averse organizations, it is also a favorite stalling tactic. Firms hire smart people, and then insist that everything they plan has to be researched to reduce risk, not realizing that consumer research has a huge cost in terms of time and energy. By overdoing research, product launch times are often dreadfully extended, and there is a chance that the end product looks as if it was built to satisfy everyone, but actually satisfies no one.

But if done well, consumer insights and research can be a great way to give your product the right direction.

Good consumer research is about asking the right questions for your product decisions, not forcing answers from consumers.

There are various types of consumer insights and research:

  • Ethnographic research to understand how consumers live their daily lives and to see their concerns – also called cultural immersions
  • Detailed research for consumer segmentation to figure out distinct subsets with similar behaviors and tastes
  • Consumer co-creation of ideas or products – showing consumers raw sketches of an idea and actually building it with them
  • Consumer validation of proposition or pricing – qualitative and quantitative research
  • Research on product positioning and how it resonates with core consumer segment

 

As a startup, you do not have the luxury of commissioning huge research projects. Here are some elements you could look at:

A day in the life of the consumer

A typical project would be to identify key stakeholders and journey for a few days to understand their lives.

-         Suppose you’re thinking of building a smartphone based inventory tracking solution for an FMCG major. The company sells stock to distributors, who then sell to retailers. Tracking inventory through the chain is manual, involving feet-on-street agents to visit every retailer for a stock update

-         You realize there’s potential to automate the system and want to start with the solution.

-         At the drawing board, you sketch a nice little system where the agent can read a table of contents that any distributor has purchased, and he can then visit a dealer to figure out actual stock levels. It will be cool for him to just update stock levels, and then you could calculate inventory levels

-         Now, you decide to spend a day with a company agent. The agent visits many varieties of shops. He drives a two-wheeler, parks it at a regular tea shop for a quick chat and tea,and then starts his rounds

-         He visits shops, speaks for a few min to the shopkeeper, checks on a query with his boss, then gives the shopkeeper an update of new products in the pipeline or any offer that the company wants to launch for Diwali. After this, he takes a stock position so that he can see what products have sold well. On an average, he visits 10 shops a day and returns later in the afternoon to report stock position

-         At the end of the day, you figure that the agent has to make a lot of calls during the day, many while taking stock position. This is easier if he writes on a book, as he can call and write. Many areas where he visits do not have good network coverage

-         Your initial proposition to the company was automation of stock taking, but the agent’s concerns are that he spends more time in every shop than before entering data in the system and due to bad network connection, actually has to come back and fill in the holes in the data. Also, many of the agents do not like a touch screen phone as they cannot put a plastic cover to keep it safe from the rain, and find that battery life is low

By spending the day with the actual user of the service, you may end up figuring a wealth of information about habits, concerns, social behaviors, and more. In the end, you realize that a more viable solution is to have an SMS based client with local data storage that runs on a feature phone, as is a great way to solve the primary data collection problem.

Who else is affected by it?

In addition to the key stakeholder, you often have influencers and others who have opinions about the solution.

-         You decide to spend time with the agent’s manager, some shop keepers, and senior managers from the company. You find that each has their own concerns. The manager wants to bill stock before the month end to reach his targets, but the shopkeeper wants to see special offers first. This gives more info about what each considers a good product.

In consumer products, it could be anybody else – a wife who rolls her eyebrows when the husband wants to pick up a smartphone with a new feature set, a friend who is a product advisor and is brought along to ask the intelligent questions – knowing the landscape of the usage and purchasing decisions helps in product design, marketing and packaging.

In one of my earlier jobs, we had set up a stall to sell GPS navigators at an auto show. We realized that a lot of our target audience came as couples, and while the guy would get excited about the technology, the lady would usually try to drag him away quickly. To give guys time to understand the product, we pulled up chairs in the stall, and asked one of our sales girls to invite the lady to have a seat and speak to her.

In the process, we figured that ladies were interested in different aspects of the device, but were uncomfortable asking. They also found the packaging and approach very techie, and were put off. This gave us a huge insight to redesigning the packaging to spell out benefits lucidly.

Co-creation with groups

One other method you could adopt is to get a group of potential users together and have a discussion with them.

This is usually done better with a moderator, to ensure that some of the users do not overshadow the others. But there are many interesting insights in the conversations they have amongst themselves. You could also propose your solution and let them play with the idea a bit. At this stage, don’t worry about the feasibility of the solution, just figure out what they tell you and what they don’t but still has relevance to your product.

Post this, you can get expert opinion on feasibility and then get more detailed qualitative and quantitative validation exercises done. Good consumer research is about scavenging insights – listening and learning what consumers do not tell you directly. If you get the right insight, your product starts on a solid foundation.

What has your experience with consumer insights been? Post your comments on the topic below or reach out to me on Twitter at @shrinathv.

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