Agile methods. Rapid prototyping. Design sprints. Speed and scrappiness are firmly entrenched as the core tenets of many a progressive, tech-driven company. Agile ways of working have defined the modern tech startup–and have gradually been making their way to more traditional enterprises too. Despite the trend toward lean thinking, most consumer research–especially at traditional/legacy companies–still moves at a notoriously glacial pace.
Why has consumer research–one of the most foundational inputs for a company’s success–failed to keep pace? Will it forever lag behind other organizational disciplines? Emerging methods, technologies, and mindsets suggest that it might not: “lean research” is gaining traction among startups, will become increasingly commonplace across the business landscape.
Defining Lean Research
What is lean research? Lean research is not defined by any particular method, but rather by careful, calculated concessions in the research process. Smaller sample size. Fewer questions. Participants that only partially reflect the target audience. These concessions–when made with discretion–afford increases in speed and reductions in cost, allowing for more research inputs throughout the life of a project. Rather than the single, ‘tell-all’ study at the beginning of an engagement, you conduct multiple, lean inquiries over the entirety of the project.
Lean research works particularly well with new offerings and complex challenges. In these engagements, there are so many unknowns at the beginning that it’s difficult–unrealistic even–to identify every piece of input you’ll want from your participants up front. That makes it uncomfortable to invest in a large, costly study: you risk spending loads of resources and still not learning everything you need to know. In these early stages, the marginal gains in rigor often don’t warrant the added time and cost.
With lean research, you establish early, directional insights with a lean study, then refine assumptions and hypotheses as new information emerges. Those new assumptions and hypotheses get tested with additional lean studies. It’s an iterative approach that allows for more frequent research input throughout a project.
Traditional researchers, I know what you’re thinking: “What if I run a few lean studies and get some directional results, only to have the findings doubted by a senior executive?” Great! You’ve found a potential source of additional funding for a more comprehensive, rigorous follow-up. You tell the executive that you’re far more confident a follow-up study will reveal everything you need to know, since it will be shaped by the inputs from your previous lean inquiries. And because of the lean approach, you’re probably well under budget anyway.
Leveraging Lean Research Methods
Let’s look at a few examples of lean research in practice. At Beyond, we’ve partnered with a company that allows us to launch three-question pulse surveys in a matter of minutes. A self-service platform lets you design a pulse survey and send it to a panel of users, who respond via an app. Response time is nearly instantaneous. We receive hundreds of responses within minutes–contrast that with the typical 1-2 weeks it takes to field a traditional survey. Better yet, the cost per response is only $1–a steal, by industry standards. Moreover, you can target by basic demographics and interests. It’s a brilliant business model.
Using this method, we’ve tested everything from app names to theoretical value propositions. Recently, we conducted an experiment that tested three different messaging approaches for the loyalty program of a large hotel company. We spent the morning designing our experiment, the afternoon preparing the creative, and the early evening collecting and analyzing data. We had results–and a directional messaging recommendation–by 6pm.
Now, would we immediately recommend changing all the loyalty messaging based on this survey? Of course not, but that was never the intent: the goal with lean research is to get incrementally smarter: the results gave us direction for more refined ideation and iteration.
Another technique we’ve utilized is the three-minute interview. You would be amazed at how much you can learn with 3-4 well-chosen questions. You simply have to find participants, which sometimes requires a bit of creativity. We’ve crashed meet-ups, hung out in parks, perched outside storefronts that reflect our audiences’ interests–we’ve even gone to an alumni event when working on a university site redesign (we shared the findings of our three-minute interviews with the director of alumni relations, and he was floored by how much we had learned in a single evening, and how well it aligned with his prior research).
The Limitations of Lean
It bears repeating that you have to understand and acknowledge the limitations of lean research. Lean research methods are inherently imperfect, but often better than nothing. We’ve been hiring for a few roles on our Insights Strategy team, and I’ve spoken with candidates from massive, well-respected agencies who have never conducted primary research! My question is why? (to the agencies, not the candidates–I’m a nice interviewer) Primary research doesn’t have to be costly and cumbersome–you just have to know when and how to get scrappy.
Also, none of this is to say that traditional research is dying: there will always be a time and a place for rigorous, deliberately-paced inquiry. If a global CPG brand redesigns its packaging–and a half-percent change in sales could cost or generate millions of dollars–they better take their time to conduct extensive research, and ensure they ace the new package.
But in other cases–particularly with new offerings and complex challenges–lean research can be invaluable. Its faster cadence affords more opportunities to test new knowledge, often at a lower cost. This versatility and efficiency are the primary drivers of interest in lean research, particularly among startups. Managers and executives at more traditional companies would do well to embrace it if they’re going to keep pace with their nimbler counterparts.