Surface research won't tell you much
By Tom Gibbons
June 20, 2004

This is a story of how a Mesa market research firm dug a little deeper--by having some kids search for buried coins--and saved a company from digging itself a hole.

Market research is a tool all sorts of companies use to determine what products consumers want, how to improve products, why consumers like another company's products, what advertising jingles they remember, etc.

There have been two major ways to get this information: Call someone up, or drop by their house or corner them at a mall and ask them questions.

The other market research method that has enjoyed popularity for the past couple decades is called a focus group. In a focus group, you get a small group around a conference table and talk about a product. U.S. industry spends more than $1 billion on focus groups alone.

There is no way to calculate the cost of invalid results or the value of good ones. Suffice to say that billions of dollars a year ride on the decisions based on market research. Getting the right information is important--and difficult.

There are a couple drawbacks to the conventional research approaches. First of all, if you are called on the phone right before your favorite sitcom comes on, and you spend 30 minutes answering questions about cheese, probably the last 25 minutes you are not really giving careful answers but trying to get off the phone.

With the focus groups, strong personalities sometimes influence other opinions.

Finally, sometimes we don't answer questions with, shall we say, complete honesty. If you are taking a survey about deodorant soap, for example, and you are a little lax on hygiene, will you actually admit you only bathe only every other day?

But another research method is emerging. Call it the power of observation. The folks in the market research business, call it ethnography. It borrows from practices of anthropology. What it boils down to basically is instead of merely asking what a person thinks about a product, the researchers watch the person use the product.

Adweek reported that market researchers began experimenting ethnography in the 1980s but the method really gained momentum the last five years.

In Mesa, an industrial design company at Falcon Field, Concept Designworx, decided about a year ago that this kind of research dovetailed with the kind of design work the company did. Concept Designworx, which specializes in experience-based design--for example buttons and switches on business cards for companies that make those items--started Peek Research.

"A lot of agencies say they do ethnography, but they don't really," said owner Patrick Scofield. Sometimes, those agencies contract with Scofield's company.

Peek teams have traveled all across the country for clients. As with most market research, the specifics are generally confidential.
But Peek Research shared one story. A company had designed a metal detector--you know the kind looks like a weed trimmer and you hold with two hands--for kids to find coins. A well-known competitor already had one on the market.

The market testing was pretty simple. Bury some coins, turn some kids loose with various kinds of metal detectors, see what happens. The client's prototype was too big for younger kids to use, and that was a valuable lesson. But another lesson emerged. The competitor's metal detector wasn't the one the kids liked best.

What the kids really liked were wands they could hold with one hand while they dug with the other. "They made their own experience," said John Donachy, Peek's director of research and strategy. And that kind of insight you only get by digging beneath the surface.

Concept Designworx Inc.