What is Agile Market Research?

Posted by Ray Poynter, 11 May 2017

Image depicting AgileOne of the hottest terms in market research at the moment is the word ‘Agile’. However, there is not a lot of clarity about what exactly it means and how it should best be utilised.

Two definitions, with Two Different Derivations
One of the reasons that there can be confusion around the term agile market research is that there are two separate definitions, based on two different perspectives and derivations.

  • Agile, as in responsive, a term that has been used in research for many years.
  • Agile, as in the Agile Movement, a modern method of project management often identified with the software industry and concepts like minimum viable product, sprints, and scrums.

In this post, I am going to use agile with a lower case ‘a’ for the first of these meanings, and Agile with an upper case ‘A’ when referring to the adoption of the Agile Movement approach to market research.

Responsive Research is Often Bespoke Research
Using the word agile in its more traditional way, it is often used to describe research that is flexible in the sense of being designed specifically for the needs of a client/project. Whilst this form of research typically needed to move fast, it was not expected to be inexpensive, and it was largely the domain of experienced and skilled researchers. It is not unusual to hear boutique agencies, especially qualitative experts, describe themselves as agile, because they are not using a standardised product. This use of ‘agile’ sets them apart from the large agencies who derive a major part of their revenue from using standardised products – and who are therefore characterised by the boutiques as being ‘not agile’ or as being ‘inflexible’.

Agile Movement Research is Usually not Bespoke
In this use of the term Agile, the client is adopting an Agile methodology. They are adopting Agile as a form of project management. Market research is simply one of the tools they are using. In this context the client is using test and learn, iterative development, fail fast, and sprints. This means the market research they require has to be fast (to fit their timeline), cheap (they want to use it several times as they iterate), and easy to use (the whole team working on the project – the scrum – should be able to work with the research).

This tends to mean that Agile research is standardised and often automated. In terms of priorities, an Agile research input needs to be fast, it needs to be affordable, and it needs to be good enough to provide help in assessing what features to iterate.

Market Research Does Not Need to ‘Fail Fast’
Sometimes when you hear people evangelise about Agile Market Research, they will talk about the need to adopt many of the conventions of the Agile Movement, but I think they are fundamentally mistaken about the role of MR in an Agile project. A client who is looking to launch a new software platform (or soft drink, or retail franchise) might be using Agile. They want to iterate, they want to launch an MVP (minimum viable product), and they are prepared to ‘fail fast’ as part of choosing the best path.

However, they do not want their tools to be MVPs and they do not want them to fail fast. They expect their spreadsheet software to be fully functioning, their accounting to be accurate, and the market research to give them a clear guide. When running an Agile project, the team want ‘bulletproof inputs’, these are fully tested, easy to use, robust inputs to help them use Agile for their project.

Market Research and the Agile Movement
The growth in the use of Agile approaches by clients creates a great opportunity for market research. But, market research needs to create the right products and services. Four of the key routes are:

  1. Standardised, cheaper, faster products. When clients can buy tools like a Link test from ZappiStore* by simply logging in, paying a modest fee, uploading materials and getting a rapid result, it is easier for them to use these tools iteratively – because they are fast enough, cheap enough, and easy enough.
  2. Online Communities*. Online communities eliminate many of the slow and bespoke elements of market research. The sample is selected, the method of running qual and quant is established, community members respond quickly, the marginal costs of one more test are low. In many cases the scrum team can ask questions and create surveys themselves, bringing them closer to customers.
  3. DIY Tools. There is a growing and massive range of DIY tools, covering surveys, sampling, and even advanced analytics. This enables Agile developers to talk to customers with none of the delays of the past (and at a low cost). However, one concern with this route is that the lack of expertise of the scrum team could lead to poor research or worse still poor interpretation. So, the challenge for market research is to make the use of these tools more bulletproof, i.e. more likely to generate meaningful and valid interpretation.
  4. Dashboards and Real-time Reporting. The Agile team do not want to wait for debriefs and presentations, they want to learn and iterate, and systems that allow them to access the information more quickly and on their terms are more likely to be used.

Not Everything Will Be Agile
Large parts of the research industry are going to be fast-moving, automated, and standardised. These parts of the industry will be geared around the needs of people who need things fast, who are looking for guidance not advice, who want direction not precision, and for whom research is typically a small part of the wider project.

However, I am glad to say, I think there will also be a wide range of situations were innovative, consultative, bespoke, advanced research will be needed. These situations include:

  • When a company does not know which projects to run, and/or which direction to go. I liken these cases to the difference between a trip around the harbour (an agile boat is best) or a cruise across the ocean (a big boat is best).
  • When a company needs an answer to a problem, and the standardised tools are not providing it. For example, when should you conduct F2F ethnography with high-quality ethnographers? When you can’t solve the problem in a cheaper/faster way – and the number of these situations is growing, because big data is generating more complex problems.
  • Where a company needs a deeper understanding of people, as opposed to just wanting to know how to tweak their product. Studies that look at motivations and which need to be integrated into strategic planning fall into this category.

The latest GRIT report (to be published shortly) has a useful piece of information about innovation and clients. The client category most associated with innovation in its MR approaches is Consumer Staples. This is a mature category, where there are few tangible product benefits, and the brands need to dig deeper to find small competitive advantages to keep ahead in a cutthroat marketplace. As markets reap the benefits of the standardised tools, their need for small ‘a’ agile will increase, not decrease.


Ray Poynter, 12 May 2017

*declarations of interest. ZappiStore is a sponsor of NewMR, several providers of online communities are clients or sponsors of NewMR, for example Vision Critical, Ipsos, Dub, and QuestionPro.

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