From “Flabby” Research to “Lean” Research

In a previous role, a client in charge of a dishwashing detergent brand came to us wanting to explore the world of dishwashing decisions in order to come up with some ideas for innovating products and increasing sales. We believed that watching 20 people videoing themselves doing dishes and narrating through their decisions would help do just that. 

After about 3 days, I suggested we change up the rest of the week, asking the group to react to something else - it was beginning to look like an entire week of dishwashing diaries wouldn’t automatically direct us to innovative products. “We just need to add more people,” my boss said. So we recruited similar people to do the same thing and had the rest continue on for the rest of the week. 

On the last day, we asked the group to “Be creative and dream up an innovative product capable of making all your wildest dishwashing dreams come true.” As helpful as everyone was, no one had a burning desire to do our jobs for us. At the end of the week the client was frustrated with “the findings” and my boss reacted by adding on another week of dish diaries. 

So, I watched the same people do their same routine for 6 more days. I especially enjoyed the final day, when 90% of the respondents said, “Welcome to day 12 of my dish diary. I bet you’re getting tired of watching me do the exact same thing. I sure hope this is helping you with your research project chuckle chuckle *wink*” The project ended without anyone crossing the Finish** line. 

** brand of dish soap :)
I worked on a skincare and cosmetics project in which we used a week of video blogging to “get to know” these women and their skincare routines followed by depth interviews to explore their relationship with the brand in more detail. I met with my colleagues responsible for the in-person interviews and asked about their objectives and what they wanted to learn from the video portion so I could better craft the activity guide. 

“Basically, we’re using this to help us pick out the people we want to talk to, so just make sure they fit the screening criteria and recommend the best ones to be interviewed,” they said. 

At the end of the week I made my recommendations, including a few people who deviated from the spec, but had a unique and potentially illuminating perspective. 

My colleagues chose to speak only with the respondents most likely going to say what they expected to hear. 
These are just two examples of how projects were run at a flabby company. No one actually cared about eliminating the waste holding us back. It was easier to cling to the safety net of default processes. Rather than try to break free, they chose to retreat back to the false sense of security templates and systems provide. Resilience, resourcefulness and improvisation didn’t stand out as metrics for project success. We set up projects, let them “run” and then came back at the end. 

This unspoken attitude of detachment does not set us free; it holds us hostage. In order to run lean projects, we need resilience and resourcefulness; we must make a constant commitment to remain mindful and present throughout the entire process. This helps us see when we need to improvise and helps us learn to both observe and interpret - to use our heads and our ‘guts’ to understand people and behavior. Sometimes that means we have to deviate from our plan, and often it means confronting our beliefs and checking them against reality.

The job of research isn’t to ignore or deny our beliefs, but to check them. We need to balance what our guts tell us with what our brains can discover, observe and interpret. We need to know when to to choose sides when they are in conflict; when to harmonize them when they are compatible.

To do this, we have to develop our flexibility, our resiliency, our willingness to improvise, our mindfulness when designing and researching. We have to seek out uncomfortable truths and challenge our beliefs. We have to really be there. 

That means doing things differently.