When big ideas are in question and the clock is ticking, iterative research can help

When big ideas are in question and the clock is ticking, iterative research can help
November 27, 2017 Eva Van Krugel

We’re in a world that loves buzz words in business, particularly in marketing and market research. Right when you want to look the other way, a buzz word creeps up on you, you check out what it might mean for you and on occasion, it’s cause for reflection. Here’s one: “iterative”.

Iterative design, iterative research, iterative testing – they’re all relatives of one another. The concept of iteration is all about cyclical testing and evolution of ideas done repeatedly and systematically. It’s not a new concept. But the word ‘iterative’ is buzzing more than ever with the thrust of agile development in product and concept design.

One of the best resources out there to break down what agile development is all about, is Sprint by Jack Knapp with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz from Google Ventures. Sprints are all about iteration. They say, “The sprint gives teams a shortcut to learning without building and launching”. So, there is a repeat learning element to apply insights to continue to evolve a core idea. This is done before the launch of a product or idea to ensure viability of it, and it’s done so in just five days. The learning piece is where research often comes in to help inform evolution of the idea, straight from target users.

Iterative research through to prototyping isn’t just for tech and digital venture companies. According to Layla Shea, Founder and Chief Insights Officer of Upwords, “we’re seeing more marketing and communications agencies benefit from the power of iterative research than ever before to integrate the voice of the customer and drive much more impactful, powerful work in the marketplace. That’s good for everyone involved.”

We interviewed Layla to learn more about her perspectives on iterative research. Here’s what Layla had to say.

  • What inspired Upwords to get into iterative research with marketers and creative agencies?

Layla: “Iteration is core to the Upwords philosophy. Some of our first projects were iterative, before it was a buzzword. In Upwords’ earlier years, we ran 10-day mini-communities online. We would always build in a ‘flex day’ for a check-in with the client after a few days in field. Here we would see what needed to change or be added to the stimuli and discussion guide based on themes we had already heard. When we used that flex day to apply learnings to the ideas being explored, we saw huge advantages. It made concepts stronger and gave our clients an increased sense of confidence in what would be impactful in the marketplace.” Over time we started doing more iterations in less time, and projects became faster, but the core philosophy stayed the same.

Being iterative in research and idea development helps keep clients on course when stakeholder groups are complex and timelines are tight. It helps channel the voice of the customer throughout a project. Plus, it lowers risk before launching in-market and can heighten the impact an idea might have.”

  • What has changed in recent years in the iterative research space?

Layla: “Now timelines are so much tighter. The word ‘rush’ has become the norm. We just finished a project last week when we were in-field online for six days, doing four iterations in partnership with our client and creative agency. Typically, we’ll do three to four iterations over 10-14 days, but every project is different and when a stakeholder team is on board, we all make what needs to happen – happen!

Agencies and clients have higher than ever demands to do their best creative and strategic work. They not only need to produce high caliber work, they need assurance and certainty that what they launch in the marketplace will resonate and get the results expected of such large investments.

In a world demanding faster, better and more, iterative work has never been more relevant than it is right now.”

  • In the context what Upwords does in the online qual space, tell us more about what ‘iterative research’ really means.

Layla: “Iterative research can be done anytime a ‘concept’ needs to be optimized. Those concepts can be new products, or messages.  It’s a process whereby we go back multiple times to refine ideas by building in the voice of the customer. It’s like a funnel. You start broad and you go in and test, and you refine and test again. We do it as many times as we need to. Sometimes we keep the same participants in the study (a sort of co-creation process) and sometimes we need to bring in new ones to avoid bias and fatigue.

Iterative research enables a team to work faster because the feedback on their ideas is coming in at lightning speed. In one or two weeks, we can go from having a preliminary idea to going to something that has consumer validation and refinement, with clear understanding of drivers and barriers.”

  • What are some things about iterative research that might surprise marketers and agencies?

Layla: “One thing we’ve found at Upwords is the entire stakeholder team is more engaged in an iterative study. Stakeholders can ‘observe’ when the study is live, they can see the conversations as they happen and they’re coming to their own conclusions so they’re part of solutions. There’s more ownership as stakeholders are formulating their own insights. We come together and debrief on implications after each field day to apply what we learn to the next phase. Iterative research is collaborative, engaged and ownable for everyone.

This deep level of stakeholder engagement was described in a recent QRCA webinar featuring Mark Buntzen of The Distillery. Mark shared how innovation is led best when stakeholders are involved in uncovering insights as opposed to being ‘fed’ the data. It makes them much more likely to act on the learnings.

What’s also interesting is the study participants become cocreators in a sense; they can’t wait to see how their feedback builds on the ideas and love that they can see it all happening over a period of days.”

  • Isn’t this similar to A/B testing?

Layla: “Some people ask us if iterative research is a bit like A/B testing. A/B testing can be iterative but it tends to be quantitative in approach, and statistical by nature. While it helps inform user experience and digital design on how to make things better, it doesn’t look at ‘why’ people say and do what they say and do – which we can answer with online qual. So with qualitative iterative research, we might find out the best answer was C, something that A/B testing would never have uncovered.

Traditional research approaches still hold their value –  especially if a team isn’t ready to run a ‘sprint’ and if the team has longer timelines. Sometimes stakeholder groups simply can’t invest the time required to run these marathon sessions with us. In those instances, they can spend more time on exploratory work. But today, we’re finding that teams so rarely have that luxury of time. Iterative research works so well on those rush projects and largely, really fun to work on.”

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