12 Things Great Innovation Research Does Differently
The Challenge
Project Highlight
12 tips for designing insight work that delivers the richness of context that teams need to create products and services for the real world.

We’ve talked about how innovation teams need a different approach to research. Here are some tips we’ve learned to help you lead projects that deliver the richness of context innovation teams need in order to design products and services for the real world.

1. Higher resolution insight work calls for a mix of skills

Getting to higher resolution insights involves a different approach to insight work. It’s more iterative, requires more seasoned people on the ground to make decisions about how to pivot methodology when needed, it calls for more time spent with consumers in more intimate settings and it involves more energy towards pulling the full picture together after fieldwork is over. We will follow this article with a bit more detail on how to run those types of projects.

2. Start with hypotheses

Because innovation aims to deliver solutions, a good place to start is a hunch around what your team thinks a solution needs to do. We begin every innovation project with an understanding of our hypotheses, a sense for what we know that may be driving our hypotheses, and often some early solutions in the form of (intentionally bad) prototypes to probe more tangible around what a solution needs to do. These prototypes are not complete and we do not test them – we use them to learn and then throw them away. More on that later.

3. Use A Responsive Methodology

If you’re committing resources to conducting research, you’re probably know some things and don’t know others. Great researchers embrace the potential power what they don’t know and design a methodology that can respond as teams learn. The more you learn, the better your questions and methodology gets. Leave room in your methodology for your work to pivot and improve over the course of a project. As you learn, your questions become better, you discover people and things you hadn’t thought to explore. This is the secret to projects that come back with diamond quality transformational learning.

Alt: If research is worth doing, you are beginning the process with more questions than answers and probably have more unknown unknowns than you realise. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know and therefore it is difficult to design the perfect methodology from the start. If you design a methodology that evolves as you learn, you can structure your research project to get better, sharper and more insightful over time.

4. Learn in context and leverage context

We’ve talked about how innovation is contextual, run your research in the environments where your users operate, where purchase decisions get made, where your opportunity is at its peak, and where your solution is likely to be used. And while there, leverage that environment. If you run an in-home seated in the living room without actually exploring and interacting with the house, you will miss the opportunity to probe the specifics around how environment shapes behaviour and some of the clues that sit hidden in people’s environments.

5. Take Time To Get Close

The best insights come from getting close, but getting close takes time. We often interview people over Skype or FaceTime before scheduling our time in field. This lets us shortlist a set of respondents we want to spend more time with (hours, days, repeat visits). We then have the opportunity to dedicate the effort it takes to go deep with respondents we think will be the most interesting.

6. Take Breaks // Pause, reflect and pivot your methodology

Great insights come from taking time to pause, reflect on what was learned, and refocus your methodology periodically to ensure your learning gets deeper and richer as you go along. Racing through an insight process, especially where multiple countries over multiple weeks is concerned, runs the risk of learning missing hidden depths and forgetting the nuances you capture along the way without really landing them properly.

7. Think about users rather than consumers

(interaction verses passive) – this is a vestige of market research’s rooted in marketing where people were passive recipients of messages. Innovation is about understanding context and interaction regardless of whether you’re inventing a mobile device or a consumer snack.

8. Design for breadth and depth (aggregators // experts // groups // individuals)

Great insights come from starting broad and then going deep. At the beginning of an insight process, you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are likely some really important questions out there that you haven’t thought to ask yet. This is why Propellerfish starts the insight process with people who know more than we do about our consumer, our challenge or our opportunity. This means experts (people with deep expertise around an important topic), aggregators (people who encounter lots of the types of people we are designing for) and sometimes outcasts (people who are in conflict with the status quo around our topic and therefore have some useful insight into it). Starting with this breadth of perspective helps us get up to speed quickly by leveraging the expertise and perspectives of others in order to articulate the perfect questions before we go into field with our users.

9. Be Grounded In Reality

Research that aims to understand users in context and inform the design of real solutions should be designed around replicating reality as much as possible. This means running research with users in the actual environment you want to understand, using real prototypes to replicate real behaviours in understanding how to get a solution just right. A 2D sketch of a product meant to be used in a kitchen shown to consumers in a focus group facility is likely to generate little genuine insight if compared to giving consumers a rough 3D prototype they can use in an actual kitchen while we observe.

10. Be Local

“We are coming to you guys because we want to work with people who don’t think the obvious is interesting.”

Global projects come with a heavy risk of misinterpretation distorting valuable nuance through the lens of a team’s home culture. At Propellerfish, having lived in another country and (ideally) speaking another language is a key hiring criteria, especially when it comes to team members who will be spending time in the field. Having spent time in another culture makes people more sensitive to the biases that skew people’s interpretation. Still, having a local person on the ground is key to capturing a clear picture of how local consumers think and behave along with the relevant aspects of their environments that influence behaviour. Translators can be helpful here if they go beyond the task of translating people’s words and go a step beyond in terms of bringing the nuance of those words to life and pointing out any relevant context in the environment that we would want to understand.

11. Experiment: Make people do things

What people report about their behaviour and how people really behave can paint two different pictures of a particular interaction between your user and an opportunity or problem. A consumer might overlook an important part of an interaction in telling researchers about it because they take it for granted or have never noticed it before. Meanwhile, getting users to do things allows research to experiment with alternatives and interventions early in their learning process to understand which aspects of behaviours can be changed for the greatest impact in designing a successful solution.

Example: On a project aimed at designing snack packaging, we asked consumers to open snacks for us on camera before playing back the video and having them to comment on their behaviours. The result was a more nuanced look at what was actually happening and the ability to ask our users to comment on behaviours that would normally go unnoticed to them.

12. Show and tell

Innovation is a contextual practice and therefore great innovation research brings back a complete picture of the world around  an opportunity including deep insights into what motivates behaviour along with the various human and environmental factors that influence how a solution will work in the real world. As a result, innovation research doesn’t rely on words along but leverages photography and video in order to put some real world context around an opportunity and help solution designers keep that full picture in mind to create solutions that are useful in practice.

Finally, understand the roles and limitations of different types of research

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London, New York and Singapore.
Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that the best insights come from time spent close to real people in the real world.