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Primary Market Research

Recap of Webinar 5 by Michal Gilon-Yanai

· Product Definition,Market Research,Qualitative

Market research is a multi-dimensional task. There are different sources of information (primary vs secondary research), different types of research methods, both qualitative and quantitative and different approaches to the process of conducting research – which methods to use to answer which questions, in what order, etc. New companies can’t rely much on secondary sources such as existing market research reports when trying to create new markets, as these are often too late. Therefore, they focus on interacting directly with potential customers and use secondary research only as background and a complement to this.

Furthermore, it is commonly agreed that qualitative primary market research (PMR) should come first, to achieve a depth of understanding of potential customers and their needs, before validating hypotheses in a statistically significant way. But how do you do this effectively? When setting out to observe, interview or “put yourself in the shoes” of your target customers, what should you aim to find out, and which techniques will produce the most meaningful insights? These are the questions that we set out to explore in our May 13th webinar on PMR.

PMR takes place when we have an initial idea/concept/technology in mind, or even just a need that we’ve identified. It employs the same or similar techniques that are commonly used for need identification, but at this stage we use them to:

1. Validate that we understood the need well.

2. Determine whether our direction for a solution is appealing to customers and/or

identify new directions.

3. Collect as much information as possible for designing and delivering the best possible


Our first speaker, Prof. Eric von Hippel of MIT Sloan pioneered the research on “lead-user innovation”, according to which innovation always starts with lead/expert users. It is therefore a useful approach both for generating ideas for new products and for initially testing them. Eric recommends starting with your own needs when trying to innovate, as there is nothing as primary as a problem that you face yourself, and the deepest insights come from a personal familiarity with a need or a challenge.

However, if you don’t have an appropriate personal need to base a venture on, he recommends searching for lead users in the space that you aim to innovate in. These are defined as those who 1) Have needs that foreshadow general demand in the marketplace and 2) Expect to obtain high benefit from a solution to their needs. Since established firms tend not to venture into small and uncertain markets, it is often lead users whose need is intense, who come up with the best solutions to their own problems much ahead of the development of commercial solutions. In fact, they often inspire them. Lead users “hack something” to answer their own need – and create a prototype that a producer can then turn into a clean, market ready product.

Eric provided a couple of examples of lead user innovation, for example, how repeated tampering with hotel room phone lines by some guests had led to the introduction of in room Internet services… He also pointed to some useful resources for conducting this type of research.

Whether observing and speaking with lead or mainstream target users, it is difficult to do this effectively. Our next speaker, Frank Rimalovski, Executive Director of NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute, has edited a book called “Talking to humans” by Giff Constable (who spoke at our “Ideation” webinar). The goal in writing this book was to fill the gap between recommending that entrepreneurs “get out of the building” (as coined by Steve Blank) and their lack of knowledge about how to do it right. Frank shared some of the useful tips that can be found in the book, along with some examples. First, he stressed the importance of knowing who you should aim to learn from, and defining clearly what you want to learn. The main goal of PMR is collecting information to validate/invalidate hypotheses regarding the different components of the business model (as represented by the Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder, for example). Initially, when you set out to learn as much as possible about the target customer in the context of the problem that you want to solve, the focus should be on getting real stories of the customer experiencing and dealing with the problem, finding its root cause and uncovering the emotional aspects.

Frank shared some guidelines for finding interview subjects, recommending at least one degree of separation, and ending each conversation with a request for a couple of referrals to additional interviewees. He further recommended playing the student/researcher card which increases cooperation and conducting the interviews in the customer’s environment. Finally, Frank provided advice for ensuring an effective interview – conducting interviews in person, one at a time, and in pairs (one leading the conversation, and one taking notes). He further recommended asking open ended questions, listening much more than talking, being aware of confirmation bias, and, as discussed by Eric, looking for solution hacks developed by users.

Some Students find it difficult to conduct open-ended interviews. They are not easy to lead and are sometimes difficult to analyze for emerging patterns. Our next speaker, Bob Moesta, president of the Rewired group presented the “Jobs to be done” approach that he helped develop with Prof. Clay Christensen of HBS. This approach proposes a slightly more structured interview, directed at uncovering the “job” for which a customer is likely to “hire” a new product or service or “fire” an old one.

The “Job to be done” approach aims to find out why the customer needs the product – the rationale is that people do not focus on the “what” – the features and benefits of any specific product, but are more interested in the outcomes and value of having a “job” done. Essentially, when considering a new product they are in a specific situation trying to make some kind of progress. According to Bob, when the motivation and the higher order needs of potential customers are understood, it opens up the possibility for multiple solutions to emerge. It also becomes clear that the competitive landscape is much broader than the traditional same-category competition we are used to consider.

Bob shared two main frameworks that he uses to teach this methodology:

The Forces of Progress - this framework aims to uncover the causality of new behavior.

According to the framework, there are two forces which promote a new choice, and two which block change. The promoters are a) The push of a certain situation which creates a struggling moment for the customer, and b) the magnetism of a new solution. The forces which block change are a) the anxiety surrounding a new solution, and b) the habits of the present. While we tend to focus on the promoters, and these are also what interviewees tend to talk about, it is actually the forces that block change that are very influential in customers’ decisions to fire and hire products. Therefore, understanding these is critical to designing and selling new products.

The Jobs To Be Done timeline - this framework describes how people “pull” new things – from the moment they first hear about a new product, through passive and active searching, deciding and buying, and all the way through to experiencing the product. By interviewing customers who had just purchased a certain product (or stopped using it), certain patterns begin to emerge regarding the ways in which they use it, as well as an understanding of the main reasons that cause them to purchase the product.

Our final speaker, David Schonthal, a business designer at IDEO and a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at the Kellogg school of management joined us to discuss several more design research techniques that complement the methodologies presented by the previous speakers. According to David, in the context of our webinar, design research should be considered “exploratory research” used to inspire, not validate solutions. It is human centered, focuses on individuals, and helps identify unmet needs and understand users on an emotional/empathic level. Moreover, it helps highlight the “unknown unknowns”- by helping the researcher recognize his/her own biases and find the right questions to ask. The techniques that David presented include:

Ethnography – observing users and what they do in their own environment, to identify moments of confusion, overexertion, appropriations and inconsistencies between what they say and what they do, in the context of the researched problem/need.

Journey mapping – trying to understand the complete arc of the user’s experience, starting when someone hears about a product, through learning about it, trying it, buying it, getting help with it and finally sharing it. The goal is to identify “moments that matter” – both high and low points in the user’s experience, which provide the best opportunities for improvement through design.

Designing with empathy – stepping into the user’s shoes to gain the deepest possible understanding of the human experience, and to identify the best opportunities for improvement.

David’s presentation was a perfect ending to the session, both reinforcing the recommendations of our previous speakers and adding several new dimensions, enriched by vivid examples. The session is available for viewing here.

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