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  • Tom Eldridge

6 steps for strategic consumer research

Updated: Apr 23



Putting ‘the consumer first’ is a phrase that is seeping insipidly from early start-ups to established organisations. Business has twigged that sticky innovation that delivers real value over the long-term is built on understanding the complexity of the lives of people.


And yet research into this complexity is seen as something that can be negotiated and compromised to the smallest smudge on a timeline.


I’ve put together a list of practical steps to ensure user research becomes a key component of the service design process and not relegated to a tick-box exercise.


1. Inquiring before doing The value of prototyping is in helping you refine an idea. Where prototyping falls short is in revealing whether you are solving the right problem in the first place.Asking the right questions early in the process helps you spot and weed out bad ideas without committing too much upfront time and effort. In the absence of questions, the problem with the rush to prototype too soon is that you will end up set on a trying to answer a question no-one has asked for.


2. Commit to collaboration Having a team operating in the same shared reality means avoiding the pooling of knowledge in the minds of the few. Research without involving the project team will lead to a team working at different speeds. A real situation will see one group of people compiling and applying critical thinking for another group on a different wavelength.Establishing a shared framework for sharing knowledge on a frequent basis will mean better decisions are reached quicker.


3. Know your audience The role for research is to put forward a case, to enable a team to make a decision based on evidence. But what happens if the evidence undermines or even goes against the key decision maker and their beliefs? The reality is they will find reasons to trash and ignore it.Some people are drawn to numbers and others are more comfortable with qualitative research. Being tuned in to how the team and decision makers like their evidence packaged up will help.


4. Embrace uncertainty Comfort should be taken in realising bias blooms all around. Certainty exists only as fantasy and answers disolve into irrelevance. At school and in the workplace we are rewarded for right answers and bright ideas. Questions on the other-hand are seen as unsettling, even challenging.By admitting you don’t have the answers opens up new lines of inquiry and is far more valuable over time.


5. The Compounding effect of observation Asking questions challenges the status quo. when research is seen as additive to the design process, reasons to sideline research quickly materialise. But if you are clear and concise with your line of questioning you can learn something of value within the time and budget constraints of the project.This means getting creative with your approach to research. Try to get away from the screen and get outside of the confines of the office to observe people during breaks. Establish the practice of carrying around a notebook to capture observations so that over time reams of information around human behaviour and interaction accumulate. A handy heuristic trick when note taking is to apply AEIOU to help structure observations.Building up an array of observations can help shorten the timeframe for qualitative research and help flex the muscles of incisive questioning.


6. Move beyond users / consumers What passes for real world contact these days is reduced to putting people in a sterile environment, getting them to engage with a product, a service, or a system, while under observation.When we only see ‘consumers’ or ‘users’ we dehumanise and reduce people to just another component .That isn’t real life. It’s a distorted version of reality where people are torn out of the contexts of their daily lives.


Just one more thing Uncertainty is the one constant when it comes to research. Take comfort that the right answer or the right way doesn’t exist. Every project, every decision-maker, every audience will add their own dynamic. Your role is navigate the best possible path and outcome.


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