Friday, December 7, 2007

Research on a Shoestring Budget

Research can be classified as primary or secondary. Primary research is new research either conducted in-house or contracted from companies specializing in the discipline. Studies may be qualitative or quantitative, and methodologies vary depending on the nature of the research. Qualitative research is usually conducted in small groups or individually because the intention is to probe for opinions and reactions. Quantitative research requires large sample sizes to validate the findings and usually presents results with some degree of numerical certainty.

Secondary research may be purchased from agencies, consultants, or other research providers. It is also available by contracting on an annual basis with any number of data firms. General or specific information is available on your competitors or customers both locally and globally.

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Most often, secondary research can provide general demographic information. In order to capture intimate knowledge of the consumer, primary research is conducted to provide psycho- graphic, attitudinal, and behavioral research.

It's important to differentiate between a customer's attitudes or beliefs and his actual behavior. Normally, asking the respondent about his feelings in a study or focus group—a small gathering of targeted participants—will reveal his opinions and attitudes. But to determine his behavior, he must be observed as he is performing a task. It is most effective to observe the subject when he is unaware he is being watched. This behavior can be observed in a usability testing or other research facility or in an actual shopping environment.

Not all research needs to go through the formality of focus groups or purchased demographic information. "Next bench" research—what typically happens in an engineering environment when a developer asks the person at the "next bench" to do an impromptu or informal test— gives first-pass insight and creates a "best guess" consideration for a model. The model is not perfect, yet it is better than asking no one at all. This method is used more extensively when the product is a technological breakthrough and can relate to new ideas in web design. Later in the process, though, it's important to gain real customer response to the model.

Use caution when testing or researching strictly in an engineering environment, however. Research becomes tainted with "feature creep" that may provide elegant solutions for problems that have yet to be discovered.

This kind of research can be used when budgets are small or non-existent or when timing is short. "Next bench" research in today's environment can be extrapolated to talking with your neighbors, friends, or business associates that most closely resemble your target customers. It can be as simple as asking someone in your office or a parent of your child's friend to give her honest opinion regarding ease of use on a simple website task. For example, you can present a scenario, such as the following example, to test websites that sell clothing and have her search, find, and purchase a product based on the task's directions:

"You have a 14-year-old son who is six feet tall and weighs 135 pounds. On the website (yours, if you have clothing), find a pair of pants that have waist and inseam measurements of 29x34." People search with specific attributes in mind. Most clothing sites do not allow for a search by size. Determining the difficulty through personal testing may help you refine your prototype before moving on to more expensive testing."

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