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Global travel and field immersion is a privilege that comes with the territory when working in front end innovation, both for immersive consumer and stakeholder research activities, and to meet high-profile thought-leaders and practitioners in the innovation world.

Last month, Ben Strutt and I attended FEI 2015 in Boston where we rubbed shoulders with some of the foremost thinkers in the innovation world including Steve Blank, Seth Godin and Tom Kelley, who all delivered engaging keynote sessions.

The main take-home message of the event, largely because of its prominent representation amongst the event exhibitors, was the upsurge in technology and tools claiming to help organisations implement the innovation process.

Many of the vendors positioned their products as tools for streamlining and managing the process of realising market potential rather than supporting the initial user research and opportunity definition step. Broadly, these ‘downstream’ innovation platforms could be organised into four categories:

  • Crowdsourcing: harnessing the power of external communities and ’wisdom of the crowd’ to create and rank solutions to defined market problems and opportunities.
  • Idea management: providing a catalyst for creating and managing ideas from within an organisation.

  • R&D portfolio management and strategy: enabling organisations to focus on those innovation initiatives with the greatest chance of success and maximised return on investment; picking the winners and losers.

  • Innovation culture and alignment: developing and maintaining innovation leadership, process structures, collaboration, and organisational alignment.

Two tools stood out markedly, however, for their potential relevance to the very front end of the innovation process,  and as future disruptors for the user research and insight capture process.

The first used artificial intelligence to replicate the qualitative interview process online, enabling qualitative or quali-quant studies with hundreds or thousands of respondents. While decision-tree style software has been around for a long time, this new interviewing software, grounded on psychiatric interviewing principles, simulates a human moderator; using laddering techniques and asking follow-up questions based on previous responses. Complementary software then mines all the responses for the phrases and terms used most frequently. Interestingly, and perhaps reassuringly however, it then becomes the role of human analysts to make sense of the data; to understand the why and the relationships between functional and emotional-based responses.

The second tool was described as passive image capturing, or PiC, that uses wearable cameras taking photos at 30-second intervals. Worn for a day or two at a time by the research participant, the idea is that the camera captures insight associated with what some researchers might term unarticulated or latent needs; tracking consumers’ activity from product purchase through to use. Seen as an improvement over other mobile research techniques, which rely on conscious activation of the camera or mobile device by the participant, the PiC method nonetheless has some perceived drawbacks – as voiced by experienced front end practitioners at the conference. Foremost of these were that even a day or two of research will lead to thousands of images being generated with little indication of which can turned into usable insight, the burden remaining on a researcher retrospectively spotting the moment of potential opportunity, and the participant to explain the reasoning behind their actions.

If these two examples are anything to go by then it seems that automated data capture could represent the future of consumer research. By default it stands to reason that this will allow vastly more data to be acquired. Data is not insight, however, and there is still a critical role for humans in understandings motivations and the ‘why?’ of user behaviour. I have attended many research activities during which an unexpected, but vital gem emerges which through spontaneous moderated further exploration becomes the seed of a breakthrough innovation opportunity. When accompanied on fieldwork by members of our design team, this can be even more marked – and I never cease to be amazed how the design ‘lens’ can view and interpret the same insights in a different but highly complementary way. Nothing understands a human like a fellow human!

So, my job is perhaps safe… for now… but it won’t stop me looking over my shoulder for the next big development in research technology, especially if it can help our clients get more effectively to their goals!

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