Sticking 12 people in a conference room with a one-way mirror is a pretty tired way to learn anything. In fact, I’d argue you can learn more by talking to yourself for the same amount of time.

Can we do better?

Yes, we can. Many studies have shown that in-person research – learning from real people in real time – is a sure path to breakthrough. So, why have we let it become so boring? While technology solutions to qualitative offer exciting potential, I still believe that face-to-face consumer qualitative is the best way to reach deep, rich, meaningful insights in many cases.

At our firm, we’ve been creating and using a variety of methods that go beyond the traditional focus group. These methods orbit a central theme – borrowing from the power of ethnography and integrating behavior-based thinking into everything we do, in whatever environment we find ourselves. To be successful, they also require:

  • stronger moderator leadership;
  • greater empathy for the consumer;
  • smaller, more intimate groups;
  • client engagement in the process and beyond.

Here are four of the methods we’ve used often with great results that span a spectrum: early exploratory digging to later-stage prototype refinement. 

1. Observe with Purpose. I’ve spent hundreds of hours watching people shower, digging through women’s purses and picking dried-up French fries from under car seats, among other things, all in the name of science.

By simply observing consumers, you might uncover useful insights – and you might not. That’s because there’s simple observing like a fly on the wall and then there’s what I like to call Observing with Purpose.

Observing with Purpose require three specific conditions:

  1. intentionally looking for compensatory behaviors;
  2. intentionally looking for and identifying conflicts;
  3. and transforming these observations into high-impact thought-starters.

Compensatory behaviors are actions consumers take to make up for a failure in product performance. An expert observer will instantly spot that failure for what it offers: the opportunity to create an innovative solution.

For instance, in a study I conducted on what objects women carry in their purses, I found that many were using sandwich bags for organization and protection of contents.  If you wanted to stuff a few tissues in your purse, you’d likely use a sandwich bag to keep them clean and usable when needed. These women were compensating for the fact that loose tissues in the harsh environment of the purse were often soiled or shredded when needed unless protected. They used sandwich bags to compensate.

Conflicts are different. Conflicts result from a consumer’s inability to rationalize their beliefs and their actual behaviors, or their inability to achieve a goal in the way that they perceive they should be able to achieve it. Some may point to that conflict and say that it is proof the consumer is lying but I disagree. When I find a conflict between stated needs and observed behaviors, I know that’s a red flag identifying a market opportunity.

In another study for a healthy snack, after finding that consumers claimed better eating habits and exercise habits than their Body Mass Index would suggest, we were able to transform our observations into high-impact thought-starters. Instead of assuming that they “lied,” I created a hypothesis that they were expressing their ideal behavior. With this in mind, my team created positioning statements with their product as the savior – connecting people with solutions to realize their ideal behaviors. Solving a conflict creates a powerful positioning rooted in strong consumer insight.

2. Co-creation workshops. Consumers are smarter than we think, but they definitely think differently than researchers or designers or marketers. That’s why a co-creation workshop is a great method for upstream thinking. It brings the consumer directly into the process of ideation, defining innovation platforms, or establishing product R&D or design criteria.

Co-creation Workshops require three things:

  1. Consumers carefully screened to contribute in a group of Type-A professionals.
  2. Client teams open to emotional connection and empathy. No hiding behind the glass.
  3. Comfort with ambiguity. The conditions are not as controlled and so patience with the process is key to success.

In one study, a pest control company wanted to expand into adjacent home care services. In order to better understand the guardrails for adjacencies, consumer and client co-creation teams were sent to a variety of specialty retailers such as pet stores, furniture stores, baby care stores and outdoor sports stores. They collected information, took pictures, bought products and then created large collages (using science fair tri-fold displays) illustrating their findings. The consumers on each team then presented their findings to all the participants. Afterward, the entire group participated in ideation exercises, developing fresh ideas for this new line.

3. Consumer usability labs. One of the big drawbacks to ethnographic research is the patience required and investment of time and resources it takes to unearth insight. You go into homes or workplaces and linger for long periods of time, hoping to see an ah-ha. But when studying a short, limited task that takes place in a single space, a consumer usability lab can offer an ideal alternative.

Consumer Usability Labs Require Three Things:

  1. A limited task – something consumers can do quickly with little direction.
  2. An environment with alternatives – a space where they can come close to natural behaviors.
  3. Repetition – enough respondent observations to draw conclusions and see anomalies.

A simulated environment is created, such as a fully functional kitchen, and equipped with closed-circuit video to allow the team to observe. Consumers are recruited to enter the lab, which is stocked with the product being studied and a large variety of other supplies from which they can choose to help them complete their task. While the environment is controlled, the consumer’s task is not.

For example, in one study of baby bottles, we asked consumers to fill each of three different designs, then empty and clean them. We wanted to observe steps in the process. So, we prepared a kitchen environment at a test facility with many brands of formula and a plethora of measuring cups and systems. They could fill them one at a time, or all at once. Any spills could be cleaned up using paper towels, cloth washcloths and towels, sponges and so on. Once completed, the bottles were washed. The consumer did not know what we were testing: bottles, formula, measuring tools, bottle brushes, soap, or paper towels. This ambiguity is part of creating a behavior-based learning environment. Following the completion of the task, we then asked the consumers questions about the entire process, step by step.

The usability lab provides a convenient environment in which 30-50 realistic observations can take place over the course of a day.

4. Rapid iteration. Rapid iteration lets consumers interact directly with prototypes, providing input on them and displaying behaviors directly to designers and developers. The prototypes are then revised and again exposed to consumers, building strong ideas in succession.

Rapid Iteration requires three things:

  1. Real-time same-day iteration requires a design team and prototype team on-hand.
  2. Rapid Iteration in multi-week sprints requires focus and preparation to plan, test, and iterate.
  3. A consistent team to learn and create together moment-to-moment.

Real-time, same-day iteration works best when the professional team has a workshop available to actually make the prototypes on-site. For example, if you were working with a quick-serve restaurant chain on a new type of sandwich, you could enlist a local store to make the samples. You could then provide real-time input into the creation of the sandwich as interviews occur and let consumer taste what they conceived in real time.

Rapid Iteration over multiple weeks allows teams to process the learning on a deeper level. On one 8-week project we showed consumers stimuli every two weeks. First, we reviewed concepts and early prototypes. Two weeks later, we looked at packaging and refined prototypes. Two weeks after that, refined packages and even more refined products. The final week, we brought it all together: Concept, Package, and Prototypes. This required planning, pre-recruiting, and discipline from the team to deliver prototypes every two weeks. And resulted in a successful product launch in a fraction of the typical development time.

Walking away isn’t the answer

The traditional focus group has struggled to remain relevant. But walking away from the richness of personal encounters and consumer intimacy insight isn’t the answer. By incorporating the consumer into an active, behavior-based process, gaining their trust, and honoring their input we can continue to discover the insights that inspire innovators to create new, relevant, exciting products for us to enjoy. And isn’t that what it’s all about?