Rethinking Concept Tests – a More Human Approach

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We do a lot of idea screening and concept tests. The typical approach is to present possibilities to end-users in a survey, ask a bunch of diagnostic questions, and see what sticks. The most common questions are things like “purchase intent,” “meets a need I have,” “belief that the product will perform as described,” and so on.  This winnowing process may be necessary depending on the volume of ideas you have, but fails miserably at understanding end-user psychology. Surveys are measurement tools and are not designed to crack the “psychology code” that is essential to innovation.

There are, however, numerous ways to compensate for the inherent weaknesses of traditional concept testing.

Make the end-user first and ideas second.

Most organizations are “too good” at generating ideas. The result is that we see a lot of ideas in search of a need. We advocate flipping the process. Invest your research dollars on validating the human side of things:  needs, motivations, beliefs, behaviors, and pain points. Align your ideas to these opportunity areas. The end result is fewer, but higher-quality ideas.

Co-develop with end-users.

Organizations are getting much better at understanding and validating needs. From there, it is the job of R&D, product development, or marketing to translate needs into ideas and concepts. Without immediate end-user feedback, you may be forced to go back and validate your ideas. There is mounting evidence that co-creating with your end-users yields much better (and faster) results.

There is “good enough” research.

The key to innovation success is to listen and observe end-users. More focus groups, site visits, and survey responses are always better, but time and money is limited. In many cases, the goal is to do enough to inspire and strengthen your intuition. The quality of responses is far better than the number of responses.

Focus more on behaviors vs. opinion.

Focus groups and surveys only gauge perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. Observational research allows you to pinpoint behaviors. Past purchase data and Internet use is purely behavioral. So, instead of spending money on a concept test, why not put product ideas on an e-commerce site? If someone attempts to buy, you could always tell them it is out of stock. In a few days, you’ll get a better read on end-user demand than through a survey.

In the food industry, some manufacturers are eschewing concept tests altogether. They are investing in small batches of real product and setting up “lemonade stands” in stores to see if consumers are willing to buy. In this approach, researchers are getting consumer feedback and a behavioral response at the same time.

Quantitative concept testing can be an important tool. It has obvious limitations, and is not a substitute for building empathy for end-users. Before embarking on the next survey, ask yourself:  do I need to measure or do I need to understand?  If the answer is “to understand,” you really need a more human approach.

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