So, my client wants to know everything …
When a client approaches a researcher with a great idea s/he is often in need of critical business intelligence that will be used to develop the idea into a real product or service, to position a product in the market, or to best leverage limited resources. Gathering the right intelligence at this stage is crucial for the client’s strategic decision making. The first and most fundamental step in developing an idea into a strategy is to frame the idea with research questions – to ask, “what do you want to know?” Generally, when given this opportunity, the client would like to know everything. In this paper we address how to constructively get past this impasse and take an idea and translate it into a detailed research schedule.
Begin with wishful thinking. Even if a client has a good idea of what s/he would like to learn, clients often limit themselves because they conflate research exploration with feasibility considerations. While considering feasibility is extremely important, it comes much later in the process and, moreover, the expertise of the researcher will be extremely important in addressing this. To assist the client in stepping away from thinking about feasibility, we often ask clients to populate a list that satisfies this schema:
“I can make my idea better once I know __________”
“I can do what I want to do once I know ___________”
By asking questions in this manner we implicitly assume that the idea is feasible. Anyone considering a market study would be well served to create a list using this schema, not only to better understand the needs and complexity surrounding his or her idea, but also to better leverage the skills of a consultant or marketing professional who may not otherwise be as responsive to unclear research needs.
By assuming feasibility, one is more able to generate the broadest possible list of research ideas. More importantly, once this step has been taken the client may begin to discuss items that are of absolute importance that s/he thought were infeasible. This is important for two reasons. First it gives a richer picture of the entire landscape that is important to the client, and while fully addressing a particular research question may well be out of reach for the client’s resources, knowing that the information is desired is likely to impact how the researcher thinks about the other questions that are feasible. For example, a client may want in-depth market segmentation, but cannot afford to recruit 200 people and pay $30 each for recruiting and compensation. If the researcher is aware of the desire for this information, s/he is likely going to pay particular attention to user profiles in other research batteries in order to supply what information is feasible to address this question. Second, and even more importantly, a good researcher should be able to think creatively about the parameters surrounding a research desire and offer alternatives that better serve the resources available and nearly approximate the original research request. There are always options, and managing tradeoffs between wants and resources is part of the researcher’s job. Details on this will be discussed in section 4.
Once the client has finished populating this list, we may be approaching the upper limit of “wanting to know everything”, but at least we have identified and itemized what “everything” includes.
2a – Ordering Client Needs with respect to Relevance – for the client
Once a working list of information desires has been established between the researcher and the client, it is useful to briefly consider how each item on the list relates to the original idea. The form of this exercise is very project- and need-specific, but the general idea is to work with the client to cluster the list into groups of relevance. We have seen clusters of “central”, “nice to have”, “bonus”, “critical”, “later”, and “eventually”. However the client thinks about relevance, a triage of the items enumerated in step 1 should be conducted in order to better consider feasibility at a later stage.
2b – Ordering Client Needs with respect to Research – for the researcher
While the client is ordering the list by relevance, the researcher should order the list by research domains. Research domains need to be thought of both in terms of method and subject. At first pass the researcher should sort the list by the question involved: “will I learn this by asking how, why, who, what, where, when?” Generally speaking why and how questions are best addressed by qualitative investigation and who, what, where, when questions are best addressed by quantitative investigations. If the research covers a broad number of subjects, ordering the list by subject matter clusters is also useful. For extremely complex clustering of ideas we will graphically display the ideas in a concept map.
Additionally, to make this list of needs concrete and to help translate the ideas into a research schedule the researcher should identify the subject of each research question generated in this process — that is to say, s/he should identify what thing is going to be measured in addressing this need. In this process the overlap between several research needs often becomes apparent. If who, where, and what questions all seek to measure the same population, then a traditional survey is likely going to be the tool required to satisfy the client’s research needs. For more abstract research needs concerning concepts that cannot be directly measured the researcher should develop questions that in a constitutive or derivative manner will operationalize the abstract research need. For example, customer satisfaction cannot be easily measured, especially not in a short survey, but customer retention rates can be. (Beware those who say they can execute a high-quality customer satisfaction survey! While it is possible, you may learn what percentage of your customers are “satisfied,” but not much about the real reasons why, or how to change the opinions of those that are not.) If we believe, though, that satisfied customers do not readily change products, and therefore, user retention represents a surrogate metric of satisfaction, we can learn about customer satisfaction, in effect, by measuring customer retention rates.
3 Co-ordinating Priorities
Once the client and the researcher have each ordered the list using their criteria, they need to collaborate and combine their orderings. If the researcher feels that some of the less important questions for the client are fundamental or essential pilot questions to ask, the order of relevance should be adjusted. If the client feels that some of the questions the researcher has developed do not address the thought behind the “I can make my idea better once I know __________” statement, then the question or method considered should be adjusted. Once an agreement about the orderings of these items has been reached, both the researcher and the client will be able to clearly identify what kind of research is most relevant to the client: qualitative, quantitative, or some mixture of the two. For example, if all (or most) of the “central” questions are “how” and “why” questions, then the research should proceed with a qualitative study.
4 Determining a Schedule
What is possible? Once the research needs have been identified and ordered the researcher must explore what methods are available to respond to these needs and work within the client’s resources. While it is impossible to explicitly detail the form and shape that this process takes because each project differs fundamentally, we can offer a list of adjustments that commonly take place.
Research goals are aligned with available methods and resources. The research process can be properly staged to address the triage of research needs that the client provided, and to consolidate research efforts such that they efficiently use the client’s resources.
Expanding the Research Scope
Primary research goals were expanded to include the secondary and tertiary needs because the marginal cost of including them in the primary research is negligible.
Pluralizing the Research Scope
Some, but not all, primary needs are combined with some of the secondary, and tertiary needs because the amalgam provides a more holistic or immediately useful picture. For example, in the development of a ‘bring-to-market strategy, pricing will be central, but it could also be useful to include intelligence about product develop.
Leveraging ‘Like’ Research
An approximation of the primary goals can sometimes be usefully approached through using smaller pilot studies or existing data sources. Depending on where a client is in idea development, conserving resources for later research is often useful, especially if most primary research goals can be nearly met with cheaper pilot inquiry.
If the research need makes sense and the method makes sense and the resources do not fit, it is worth considering other ways to apply the same method in order to satisfy the client’s needs without exceeding his or her resources. If a focus group is what is desired, how many individuals need to be present for these discussions to be meaningful? Are there other ways to recruit? Because researchers are intimately aware of why certain methods work, they are best equipped to appropriately manipulate them.
Reassess from the Beginning
Infrequently, but occasionally, the primary research goals are beyond the resources available and the researcher cannot work around the issue. In these cases the research goals need to be explained to the client in terms of the cost for each, and the breakdown of tasks associated with each. One way that a researcher can do this honestly and effectively is by detailing and presenting the incidental or pass-through costs of doing the research, as well as offering a higher-level budget or projection. It is not unusual to see these pass-through costs of a project represent 40-50% of a project’s budget.
This paper describes a general formula for translating ideas into a research schedule. This formula can be flexibly applied and is useful for anyone looking to pursue an idea with the help of a third-party, including those who are working with a third-party service provider for the first time, and those who just need help translating their ideas into a research program. The general process, whether it is executed in a series of steps across multiple meetings, or in a short conversation in a single phone call, takes the form of: broad ideation, ordering research needs by participant’s role, coordinating both priorities, and determining a schedule for executing the research.
The Paradigm2 Research Team has a knowledge base that has cultivated unique research methods from the disciplines of cognitive psychology and market research. From this knowledge base the Team has pioneered the use of qualitative research for small businesses, making it possible to access hard-to-reach populations and generate deep insights through innovative methods. Some of these methods were developed and published by the research staff, as we continue to change the way high-potential organizations think about their marketing research, competitive intelligence, and strategy development. If you would like to contribute to this discussion or talk to the Paradigm2 Research Team about your research needs, please contact us here.