Market research methods
You can find out more about the customers you are trying to reach if you use market research effectively. You have a choice of different methods, depending on what your product or service is and how much time and money you are able to spend. Here is a list of the most popular approaches, with information on when and how to use each most effectively.
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Surveys involve asking a series of questions to a sample of the target population that is large enough to be statistically valid. Surveys generally offer primarily closed-ended questions, although some open-ended questions may be included. Surveys can be administered by mail, telephone, email, Internet or in person.
Develop a profile of your users:
- identify client segments
- determine client characteristics
- Validate or prioritize user needs
- Assess client satisfaction
Gauge client awareness:
- general awareness
- post-advertising campaign awareness
- Track changes in attitudes and opinions
Ensure that your sample size and composition are appropriate:
- be clear about whether you are sampling the public, your target audience or clients, or a sub-segment of any of these.
- Use one or more questions to “qualify” respondents, for example, to ensure that they fit the profile for your survey.
- Always pre-test the questionnaire with a selection of users to ensure that the questions are clear and do not take too long to complete.
Specific considerations for online surveys:
- Online surveys should take only five minutes (ideal) to fifteen minutes (maximum) to complete.
- Users self-select; so, you may wish to have a question that categorizes them and removes the results from those that do not fit your sample. For example, if you want to gauge the information needs of clients who have used your products, but 25% of survey respondents have never used your product, it may be appropriate to exclude the results of the non-users from your survey results.
- If you are using an online survey, enable an invitation to participate in the survey. This can include a link on your website or an “intercept” that interrupts users and invites them to take the survey. Note that you should invite users to take the survey when they have finished visiting your website, not when they start.
- Put measures in place to ensure that the survey is live, functioning and capturing the data.
Specific considerations for telephone surveys:
- Telephone surveys should be limited to a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes.
- Ensure you have adequate systems/software for capturing data (Excel, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, and so on).
Focus groups are moderated group interviews and brainstorming sessions that provide information on users' needs and the context within which they use or would use your services or products.
Focus groups can be useful for the following types of discussions:
- Exploratory - Obtain information on general attitudes, understand the circumstances under which users might require your product or service (triggers), understand their desired outcomes, and so on.
- Feature Prioritization - If trade-offs have to be made among various user needs, focus groups can be helpful in prioritizing them.
- Comparative Analysis - Understand where else users go to get similar information, services or products and what attracts them to those sources.
- Trend Explanation - If you notice a trend in the way that users use your website (for example, they always use the search function rather than navigating through the structured product list), then focus groups can be used to better understand why this is happening.
- Limit the length of the session to between 90 and 120 minutes.
- Generally, conduct two focus groups per location, with 8 to 10 participants per group (recruit 10 to 12 participants to ensure that 8 to 10 show up).
- Use a qualified and knowledgeable moderator who can manage group dynamics, demonstrates flexibility in adapting the discussion flow, probes skillfully to obtain deeper understanding of issues and captures a broad spectrum of opinions.
- Use a semi-structured or open-format discussion.
- Strive for homogeneity in the group's composition. For example, it may not be advisable to have business clients and retail clients in the same focus group, if their needs are very different.
- If you feel that group influence is likely to be a strong factor (for example, participants will be influenced greatly by what others are saying), then personal interviews or mini-groups (two or three persons) may be an option to consider.
Personal interviews are semi-structured discussions with an individual. They include open-ended questions where the interviewer can probe further to understand underlying perceptions and behaviours.
Personal interviews are a more expensive alternative to focus groups and are generally used in the following situations:
- The topic is too personal or sensitive to be discussed in a group, or confidentiality of the participant is required.
- A person’s opinion may easily be influenced by others in the group.
- It is as important to learn as much about what people don’t know about a subject, as what they do know. In a group setting, knowledgeable participants may inhibit less knowledgeable ones, making it difficult to explore areas of ignorance or misperception.
- Logistic problems may make groups impractical, for example, participants may be geographically dispersed, and travel time and costs may be prohibitive.
- The interview subjects are executives from competing firms who would be reluctant to open up in a group situation.
- The interview subjects are high-profile executives or decision-makers and it is difficult to schedule group sessions, or it is important that the researcher visit interview subjects individually at their convenience.
- It is important to interview the participant in a particular environment.
- A knowledgeable and experienced interviewer uses an established list of mostly open-ended questions to be asked in person or by telephone.
- The in-depth interview provides participants with considerable latitude in expressing their views.
- Interviews typically last from 15 to 40 minutes, but they can last longer, depending on the participant’s interest in the topic.
- This technique allows the researcher to obtain detailed descriptions of individual experiences.
The user is given a specific task to perform, and the interviewer observes and notes where the user runs into problems and where he or she is successful. Task analysis is different from usability testing, as it is not testing the usability of a website. Instead, it seeks to understand the thought process and actions of users in order to inform the eventual design of a website or tool.
Task analysis can be helpful in understanding how users currently use your website (and/or other websites). Using this approach, the user is given a specific task to perform (for example, buy a particular product, find a solution to a problem he or she is having with your product, find the location of a nearby store that sells your product, and so on).
- This process is more specific than contextual inquiry in that it directs the participant to use a specific website for the task.
- The interviewer can observe the users as they try to find things and note where they run into problems or are successful.
Some of the things that the interviewer should observe or ask include the following:
- What does the user see as options at any point in the task?
- How does the user choose one option over another?
- Does the user go back and change directions? If so, why?
- What mistakes does the user make, what problems are encountered and how are they handled or corrected?
- What inputs are required? (What does the user need to know to be able to complete the task? Does the user feel that this is reasonable?)
- What are the outputs? (What does the user get at the end of the task and does this differ from expectations?)
- What is the sequence of steps that the user takes in order to fulfill the task?
- How important is each step in the task?
- Would the user always use the same sequence or is it variable?
Another approach involves recording five key elements for every action taken by the user. These are:
- purpose of the action
- cues (what told the user to take that step?)
- objects used in the action (for example, documents referred to, tools used)
- method (what is the action?)
- options (what other actions were available to the user at that point and how did this action get chosen?)
All of this information can be used to draw process diagrams and develop stories or journeys that illustrate the processes and approaches used by users. It is possible that the results of the research will show that several common approaches were used.
Usability tests are structured interviews that focus on the usability of specific features of a website or other user interface.
Usability testing is best used to evaluate prototypes of planned websites or planned functionality within an existing website. It is used to evaluate the interface and to note any problems or issues faced by users, in order to give feedback to developers.
When to test:
- In order to be as effective as possible, usability testing should be an iterative process that is integrated into the development process.
- Developers can create an initial prototype which is tested with users. Revisions are made and the next version is tested. Again, feedback is incorporated and a subsequent version is tested. This continues until users are able to use the functionality with ease.
- The testing cycle can begin with very rudimentary prototypes (for example, paper diagrams) and advance throughout the development process to get closer to a fully functional prototype. This iterative incremental process should save development time, because many issues will be resolved on paper before any coding takes place. In addition, developers can make incremental improvements, rather than significant changes based on assumptions.
- Create tasks that represent typical user activities and ask the user to complete the task.
- Observe the approach that the user takes, the problems that the user faces, whether the user is successful in achieving the task, how long it took to complete the task, and so forth.
- Ask users to talk through their thought process, as they make decisions or run into problems.
- If possible, usability sessions should be videotaped to allow developers to review the sessions later to further analyse problems that the user faced.
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