Much has been discussed in the last couple of years about the shift towards agile methods used in market research. But what is agile? A simple definition is the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment.
Agile is traditionally a method used in the software development industry to provide a flexible process and allow for rapid change. Changes in our industry have seen an increased desire to conduct research frequently, as quickly as possible, unexpectedly on occasions and at a low cost to stay within budgets. This is exactly why agile has become more pertinent in market research.
The agile method is a great way to deliver research findings where these challenges are seen, as it aims to release more frequent, incremental change. However, companies can make the mistake of wanting an agile approach, yet failing to recognise the true values that underpin what agile is.
Here, I’d like to discuss issues and traps that prevent market research from being agile.
Wanting to Know Everything
It can be tempting when designing a research project to want to know everything from the what, where, when, how, why… there are too many occasions where a lack of understanding of what the key area of focus should be means research objectives are too complex. And complexity equates to time consumption and cost, both of which defeat the purpose of agile.
A key principle behind agile market research is the ability to respond quickly and with focus — that means addressing key questions and not diverting to a hidden wish list of everything you could possibly want to know.
To be truly agile, the initial planning stage should be used to pinpoint a few specific research objectives to cover. If something arises at a later stage in the research, an agile approach will allow you the flexibility to cover the additional questions somewhere else.
Less common due to the increase in more modern, online technologies in research, but when I think of research that is not agile, the good old 100+ question survey comes to mind. Where a more traditional research approach is adopted, for example, running one long survey to cover all research objectives, this presents you with only one opportunity to speak to the valuable consumer and often leads to cramming everything possible into the survey design.
A key benefit to the agile approach, recently pointed out by Annette Smith is to run small surveys often. This means planning carefully to work out what you really want to know and narrow down to a list of say 10 crucial questions which add real meaning to your research (the little). Small iterations, like we see with the scrum method, will allow you to design the survey, run it, analyse it and report the findings at speed. Then repeat (often)… and even better, you can add any missed questions in the next iteration!
You may be tempted to restrict your research design in terms of the methodology you use based on the belief that one method will save you time and money, after all, you only have to run one wave of fieldwork. In some research projects, one method may be all you need to find your answers, but in most cases a more agile approach is needed to develop change gradually over time. Iteration is a fundamental aspect of agile development; it means developing something a little bit at time. After all, change doesn’t just happen overnight!
If your research is restricted to one method and one iteration, you’re simply not allowing for any follow-ups if it raises further questions. And what you certainly don’t want is to spend your entire budget on that one mammoth sized survey to then leave nothing in the pot for follow-ups.
As an example, take a concept testing project. The concept should evolve and grow over time rather than being built in one sprint (or iteration). As you receive feedback from your participants at each stage, you begin to understand what features of the concept are important. This approach allows you to make incremental change and then test again.
We come across projects like this frequently and use the range of tools at our disposal to adopt an agile approach; in the above example, we may decide to run a couple of online focus groups which feed into the initial concept design, this may lead to a survey to test the different concepts when they’ve been developed. A further qual phase, maybe a diary narrowed down to the most appealing concepts would then allow the client to refine the concepts further. What’s key is that at each stage of the journey, the client is able to review the findings, tweak the concepts and proceed to test again.
Ignoring Participant Feedback
Just as it’s important to develop over time, it’s also essential to make those iterations count. The voice of the consumer is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the strongest tools at your disposal when developing a new product or service.
Agile research builds on feedback given in previous stages, allowing the client the opportunity to make amends or refinement and then test again. However, failing to take on board the participant feedback will only lead to frustrations from a participant point of view and will not help in the development of a new product or service.
Failing to Accelerate
While speed isn’t the core benefit of agile research, taking too long to bring research projects into field means you can’t claim it to be agile.
An obvious benefit to online research over more traditional methods is time-saving; online allows quick turnarounds — you could recruit for a project one day and be running the fieldwork the next, export the results in immediate fashion and deliver the findings, all within just a couple of weeks. But in more traditional methods, it can be time-consuming from planning a project, all the way to delivery of results.
Take face-to-face focus groups, for example: the logistical complications alone are enough to slow down the process. To arrange venue, dates and times, as well as giving your participants ample warning of the group takes weeks or even months. By this point, it is likely that whatever you are researching will have moved on.
The same rule applies in the length of time you give to sign off any research materials — and that’s regardless of whether it’s traditional or online research. If it takes weeks to go through the sign off process, the relevance of the research and its findings will be outdated.
What common mistakes do you see in agile market research? Leave a comment below to join the discussion.