As a design consultant and inventor, I have always struggled with the mandatory of validation research as part of the stage-gate process. Many large manufacturers, particularly in the CPG industry, require validation research prior to new product launches to assess potential risk, gauge demand and forecast sales. Theoretically, it makes sense. But in reality, something else ultimately happens; consumers are left to determine the fate of your innovation through personal preference in focus groups or online quantitative studies. Many visionaries have seen new products or brand concepts demolished by a few soccer moms sitting in a focus group room or worse, an online environment where the sense of scale, color, texture and context are compromised. Having been burned many times, I take feedback from validation research as directional learning versus absolute fact.
What I can say for a fact – based on 15 years of observation – is that high scoring results from validation research rarely reflect what you can expect in market, and my most successful innovations were never validated prior to launch. Results from validation research can be misleading. Your only true validation of market fit is at the point of sale via the consumer’s wallet. All too often, exhaustive consumer testing and validation become crutches, checkboxes that eliminate responsibility for potential failure. Courage and intuition are undervalued and underleveraged when it comes to bringing new ideas to market.
I understand the importance of mitigating risk before investing in capital to launch a new product. However, focus groups and virtual research have become a standard corporate process of validating a new idea. Validation research is slow, costly and produces very mixed results that, if taken literally, will allow your product to become porridge – an abomination of basic, non-polarizing ingredients that lack risk and abandon the unique characteristics so important to iconic brand experiences. Time and again, I’ve witnessed focus groups on day one of research have a completely different perspective than the groups on day two. The marketing team is then left to make decisions based on the contradicting inputs of total strangers that they’ve just fed and paid to express their personal opinions.
Working with proven designers and respecting intuition has become increasingly important as manufacturers bring new products to market. Yes, consideration of the consumer is extremely important, but not in a make-or-break way. Designers are trained to observe human behavior, read between the lines and stitch together functional, emotional, social, economic, and environmental factors into objectives that are actionable and can drive an iconic experience. An average consumer has limited understanding of a problem’s complexity while participating in research. If we let the outputs of validation research weigh too heavily on the final product that goes to market, then we are inevitably asking consumers to blindly make uneducated decisions with little regard for consequences.
A new school of thinking is to develop and design products with multidisciplinary teams – think graphic and industrial designers, engineers, marketers, consumer behavior experts – that have amazing intuition, and then gather learning through test markets. The team can work together to innovate, design, prototype, and edit concurrently with the intent to streamline development time and costs, getting to something that can be manufactured more quickly – I like to refer to this approach as agile design. The new product can then be manufactured in a smaller volume fit for a test market with a flexible partner in or out of the typical supply chain. The money that would have been spent on research can be reallocated to light manufacturing and select in-market activation. Ultimately, market fit would be assessed through actual sales results. Little room would be left for misunderstanding and more questions, which is an unintended consequence of validation research.
When Kaleidoscope helped to launch the FairLife milk brand, validation research was never conducted to judge potential success. There were some small studies used to provide directional guidance, but demand and market fit were assessed through a test market. Several iterations of the design and positioning were assessed over the course of 12 months. This allowed us to understand how messaging around ingredients, processing and benefits resonated with consumers. Once the balance of aesthetic and messaging was correct, we saw positive consumer response, proving to the team that the design was working. And the best part, the brand owner generated revenue while learning.
Validation research can have a place and add value when it comes to finding a fit for new products. However, use the learning as directional guidance not absolute fact. Speed to market is continually accelerating, and the ability to actually get to market and learn through sales is more valuable than qualitative or quantitative research. Assemble a strong team, trust their intuition, have courage, iterate and learn in real time, not a controlled, simulated environment.
photo credit: MSR Group