Subject recruitment for qualitative research

This is the third post in my Customer Research series.

One of the trickiest things about customer research is subject recruitment.  The quality and applicability of research results is directly proportional to one’s ability to ask the right questions of the right people.

There are generally two types of customer research that directly impact product development:

  • Product discovery research.  This is what typically happens at the beginning of a new product development effort. The goal is to understand who we are developing products for, what their problems are and what solutions may serve their needs and meet their expectations.
  • Product research. This is typically done after a product launch and the goal is to investigate product utility and usability and to gauge customer satisfaction.

Product discovery research should be done with prospective customers, not existing customers, for two reasons:

  • Existing customers of a previous generation product may not fit the primary persona for the new product, so we may end up asking the right questions of the wrong people.
  • Even if existing customers are smack in the sweet spot for the new product too, their expectations for the company’s value proposition have been set by the specific feature set offered by the previous product. Their needs may not be any different but their wants will be shaped by what they know about the previous product. We would be asking the wrong questions of the right people then – these folks are much better equipped to help with product research instead of product discovery research.

Product research, on the contrary, is best done with real customers and end users who would have much more to share about long term use of the product.  One can do some product research with prospective customers too, but generally unless there is a desire to start selling the product to a completely different buyer/user persona than before, it is better to stick with existing customers.

That said, nothing is absolute in customer research.  A certain amount of insight can always be generated by a bit of cross-recruiting.   For instance, during product discovery research, one can test product features with a customer advisory board who can provide a rapid sniff test without imposing the overhead of recruiting new subjects.  They can also comment on whether key features are missing in their mainstream workflos.  During product research, one might want to test product usage with a completely new target demographic and see whether the product as it stands today can be expanded to serve new market segments.

In general I believe in being highly creative and mixing things up when doing research. Every product development project is different and when one looks at the facts at hand, it will be quite obvious which types of research efforts will yield the most bang for the buck.

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