"New normal" is the buzzword nowadays. As COVID-19 spread across the country and consumers were urged to remain inside, product testing was forced to go solely digital. As a result, companies began heralding digital testing as a premier offering. Necessity, however, does not discount years of research on the multi-layered formula for compiling comprehensive product insight. This conversation is not novel, and circumstances will not change the result. A Techweek article states, “It (digital testing) battles strong resistance from big data supporters and its own inefficiencies in collection, integration, analysis, and above all, utilization of the ‘human element’ which is always open to interpretation.” Though digital testing is a viable temporary solution, online research alone lacks the capacity to become the new normal. 

As many states are in a phased reopening, our social, emotional, and intellectual connection with others looks like it could be primarily digital until a vaccine is available. Gen-Zs relentlessly seek stardom on TikTok, and basic forms of in-person human interaction are our most prominent threat. Through it all, a heavy and undeniable fact hangs thick in the air: we will never experience the same level of candid humanity, organic connection, or raw sense of community through the lenses of a webcam as we would when connecting in-person. Similarly, as we return to some version of normalcy, we now know digital testing has not replaced the sensory research methods needed to understand consumer-to-product relationships. 

Though current times necessitate a heavier reliance on online testing, consumers have changed and insights into new consumer mindsets is almost as scarce as toilet paper.

In-Person vs. Online Research

The wide range of in-person research methods, including benchmarking, discrimination testing, category appraisals, qualitative descriptive analysis (QDA), focus groups, and in-context, form the foundation of a multi-faceted consumer product understanding.

Online research uncovers its own distinctive set of insights but has mostly been used as complementary to more traditional methods of in-person research. Insights produced from digital testing and in-person testing provide data from different psychological angles and internal and external variables. Online testing often lacks the ability to capture the whole story simply because the spectrum of psychological factors is too limited to fully bring products to fruition. To confidently go to market, companies must understand their product from every perspective.

Imagine this: pre-Corona, you walk into your gym a bit hungry but feeling motivated to exercise. A stand is giving out free protein bars, so you eat one. Throughout your workout, the protein bar keeps you feeling full, satisfied, and energized. After you leave the gym, you note the snack helped fuel you through your workout.

Now imagine the online version: you’re testing the protein bar at home. You sit in your office chair in front of your webcam and eat the protein bar. After about 10 minutes, you start feeling lethargic and heavy. You make a note on your recorded video or mention it to your proctor on your video call.

An Opinion piece featured on Frontiers in Psychology states, “In an online context, consumer responses are no longer dependent on the physical environment while at the same time entirely new factors come into play such as the device through which consumers interact.” In-person and online testing involve completely different sets of consumer mindsets and are therefore impossible to compare. Curion’s 35-year legacy is built upon the foundation of human psychology and the variance of sensory insights exposed by a wide range of internal and external circumstances. We cannot ignore the glaring truth that sole reliance on online research will forgo salient pieces to the consumer insights puzzle.

Predictions for Consumer Insights Post-Pandemic

Just as video calls will never replace catching up at a cafe with friends, online testing will never replace in-person research. As society has begun to reopen in phases, the demand for product insights has increased exponentially as companies grasp to understand where they stand in a shifted market. In-person research will be more necessary than ever to provide the missing pieces that will round out product insights gathered digitally.

As consumer insight companies are limited in conducting in-context tests (in offices, gyms, etc.) for the foreseeable future, online testing will continue to play a more prominent role in product testing.

Regardless of any variance in the online to in-person research ratio, the consumer insights industry will rely on the return of in-person testing to fully inform and empower companies to confidently approach the future. Though the pandemic will leave in its wake a more digitally adapted world, the consumer insights industry will still depend on in-person testing.