Four Stages of Product Development Where Qualitative Research Counts

By Mike Chung

A regional consumer service provider was considering changing its name to reflect a shift away from outdated technology in its industry. Accordingly, we designed a survey to collect customer reactions to four candidate names. Appeal for all four names was low (11%-16%), as was preference, (topping out at 56%). Moreover, only 18% of study participants indicated that a company’s name was important. Interestingly, it turned out that the current name was actually the most preferred, and more than a few customers expressed that improving the quality of the product and service would be far more valuable than changing its name.

What to do?

When the results of a survey prompt a change in the course of the research plan, as in this particular case, qualitative research is often the best next step. Qualitative research offers broad, open-ended questions that allow companies to discover rich and unanticipated insights that will direct areas for future research exploration.

Garnering detailed qualitative feedback from customers (and non-customers) on new products, product features, and product names can be especially critical to a successful product launch or update. From time to time, we see fallout of what can happen without proper planning and research – for instance, Mattel cancelled release of Aristotle, a baby monitoring product, because of privacy concerns expressed by privacy activists and lawmakers. While it is hard to foresee every potential product pitfall, a well-designed research plan that includes qualitative methodologies can identify potential concerns with product features at different stages in product development and bring to light perceptions and interpretations that may not have crossed the product or marketing team’s mind. Below are four areas of the product development process that particularly benefit from a qualitative research approach:

Exploratory Product Research: In the initial idea generation phase of product development, qualitative research can be an ideal place to begin to give fuzzy new product concepts more clarity. Qualitative research approaches including focus groups or customer interviews can produce a detailed picture of the buyers’ experiences within the product category and reveal unmet needs or areas for opportunity to consider when developing a new product.

Feature Refinement: Conducting qualitative research is also critical to avoiding missteps in product feature development. For example, in the case of Mattel’s Aristotle, asking potential consumers, “We are thinking of including features that relay information for shopping purposes, such as an alert that your baby’s diaper supply is running low. What are your reactions to this kind of feature?” and then probing into any concerns that might surface, may have been instrumental to feature development, as well as related marketing and product message creation. In this phase, engaging an audience that spans different age groups, ethnicities, income levels, and genders is critical to take cultural differences and considerations into account that may not be top of mind for design or marketing/branding teams.

Package Testing: The tactile experience of a purchase cannot be fully measured with surveys or customer use data. Companies selling in any channel must understand what happens when a customer picks up their product. Package testing in the form of central location tests or in-home use tests enable companies to understand how customers feel about the packaging and how it impacts their decision to buy the product.

Post-Launch Review: Most rigorous post-launch reviews will include some type of survey, such as a customer satisfaction survey. Conducting follow up qualitative research in the form of interviews or focus groups (in-person or online) can reveal opportunities to hone in on any unclear or surprising findings from the post-launch surveys. For example, if a typically loyal and engaged customer segment expresses dissatisfaction with functionality or a lack of desire to buy a new product, qualitative research can uncover the reasons why and allow a company to direct future product improvements.

For more tips on how to leverage research to successfully launch new products, download our research brief, “Mind the Gap: Critical Pitfalls in the New Product Development Process”:


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