Tag Archives: innovation research

Innovation Research

12 Things Great Innovation Research Does Differently

We’ve talked about how innovation teams need a different approach to research. Here are some tips we’ve learned to help you lead projects that deliver the richness of context innovation teams need in order to design products and services for the real world.


01. Higher resolution insight work calls for a mix of skills

Getting to higher resolution insights involves a different approach to insight work. It’s more iterative, requires more seasoned people on the ground to make decisions about how to pivot methodology when needed, it calls for more time spent with consumers in more intimate settings and it involves more energy towards pulling the full picture together after fieldwork is over. We will follow this article with a bit more detail on how to run those types of projects.

02. Start with hypotheses

Because innovation aims to deliver solutions, a good place to start is a hunch around what your team thinks a solution needs to do. We begin every innovation project with an understanding of our hypotheses, a sense for what we know that may be driving our hypotheses, and often some early solutions in the form of (intentionally bad) prototypes to probe more tangible around what a solution needs to do. These prototypes are not complete and we do not test them – we use them to learn and then throw them away. More on that later.

03. Use A Responsive Methodology

If you’re committing resources to conducting research, you’re probably know some things and don’t know others. Great researchers embrace the potential power what they don’t know and design a methodology that can respond as teams learn. The more you learn, the better your questions and methodology gets. Leave room in your methodology for your work to pivot and improve over the course of a project. As you learn, your questions become better, you discover people and things you hadn’t thought to explore. This is the secret to projects that come back with diamond quality transformational learning.
Alt: If research is worth doing, you are beginning the process with more questions than answers and probably have more unknown unknowns than you realise. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know and therefore it is difficult to design the perfect methodology from the start. If you design a methodology that evolves as you learn, you can structure your research project to get better, sharper and more insightful over time.

04. Learn in context and leverage context

We’ve talked about how innovation is contextual, run your research in the environments where your users operate, where purchase decisions get made, where your opportunity is at its peak, and where your solution is likely to be used. And while there, leverage that environment. If you run an in-home seated in the living room without actually exploring and interacting with the house, you will miss the opportunity to probe the specifics around how environment shapes behaviour and some of the clues that sit hidden in people’s environments.

05. Take Time To Get Close

The best insights come from getting close, but getting close takes time. We often interview people over Skype or FaceTime before scheduling our time in field. This lets us shortlist a set of respondents we want to spend more time with (hours, days, repeat visits). We then have the opportunity to dedicate the effort it takes to go deep with respondents we think will be the most interesting.

06. Take Breaks // Pause, reflect and pivot your methodology

Great insights come from taking time to pause, reflect on what was learned, and refocus your methodology periodically to ensure your learning gets deeper and richer as you go along. Racing through an insight process, especially where multiple countries over multiple weeks is concerned, runs the risk of learning missing hidden depths and forgetting the nuances you capture along the way without really landing them properly.

07. Think about users rather than consumers

(interaction verses passive) – this is a vestige of market research’s rooted in marketing where people were passive recipients of messages. Innovation is about understanding context and interaction regardless of whether you’re inventing a mobile device or a consumer snack.

08. Design for breadth and depth (aggregators // experts // groups // individuals)

Great insights come from starting broad and then going deep. At the beginning of an insight process, you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are likely some really important questions out there that you haven’t thought to ask yet. This is why Propellerfish starts the insight process with people who know more than we do about our consumer, our challenge or our opportunity. This means experts (people with deep expertise around an important topic), aggregators (people who encounter lots of the types of people we are designing for) and sometimes outcasts (people who are in conflict with the status quo around our topic and therefore have some useful insight into it). Starting with this breadth of perspective helps us get up to speed quickly by leveraging the expertise and perspectives of others in order to articulate the perfect questions before we go into field with our users.

09. Be Grounded In Reality

Research that aims to understand users in context and inform the design of real solutions should be designed around replicating reality as much as possible. This means running research with users in the actual environment you want to understand, using real prototypes to replicate real behaviours in understanding how to get a solution just right. A 2D sketch of a product meant to be used in a kitchen shown to consumers in a focus group facility is likely to generate little genuine insight if compared to giving consumers a rough 3D prototype they can use in an actual kitchen while we observe.

10. Be Local

“We are coming to you guys because we want to work with people who don’t think the obvious is interesting.”
Global projects come with a heavy risk of misinterpretation distorting valuable nuance through the lens of a team’s home culture. At Propellerfish, having lived in another country and (ideally) speaking another language is a key hiring criteria, especially when it comes to team members who will be spending time in the field. Having spent time in another culture makes people more sensitive to the biases that skew people’s interpretation. Still, having a local person on the ground is key to capturing a clear picture of how local consumers think and behave along with the relevant aspects of their environments that influence behaviour. Translators can be helpful here if they go beyond the task of translating people’s words and go a step beyond in terms of bringing the nuance of those words to life and pointing out any relevant context in the environment that we would want to understand.

11. Experiment: Make people do things

What people report about their behaviour and how people really behave can paint two different pictures of a particular interaction between your user and an opportunity or problem. A consumer might overlook an important part of an interaction in telling researchers about it because they take it for granted or have never noticed it before. Meanwhile, getting users to do things allows research to experiment with alternatives and interventions early in their learning process to understand which aspects of behaviours can be changed for the greatest impact in designing a successful solution.
Example: On a project aimed at designing snack packaging, we asked consumers to open snacks for us on camera before playing back the video and having them to comment on their behaviours. The result was a more nuanced look at what was actually happening and the ability to ask our users to comment on behaviours that would normally go unnoticed to them.

12. Show and tell

Innovation is a contextual practice and therefore great innovation research brings back a complete picture of the world around  an opportunity including deep insights into what motivates behaviour along with the various human and environmental factors that influence how a solution will work in the real world. As a result, innovation research doesn’t rely on words along but leverages photography and video in order to put some real world context around an opportunity and help solution designers keep that full picture in mind to create solutions that are useful in practice.
Finally, understand the roles and limitations of different types of research

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that the best insights come from time spent close to real people in the real world.


How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre

Over the course of the last decade, we’ve been asked to work with the in-house innovation centres of many large organisations — we’ve worked alongside them, coached and troubleshot for them, advised on how to govern them, and designed innovation centres for our clients from scratch. We’ve seen (and set up) successful innovation centres with a track record of getting new products and services to market and delivering plenty of commercial impact. For every one of those, we can point to 3 innovation centres that have delivered little to no impact but are rich in practical insight for anyone tasked with setting one of these up properly.

With that in mind, we’ve distilled our learnings into 10 design principles to help you stack the odds for your innovation centre in your favour.


01 | Be clear on the business impact you seek

Your innovation centre must support the strategic goals of your business in a clearly defined way. So be clear on its mission — is it there to seize tactical innovation opportunities in the market that are currently passing the business by, or is it there to identify and realise big new opportunities? Give it clear KPIs. Don’t fudge it with a loose agenda and subjective measures of success. And give it a clearly defined scope — focus on a maximum of few key areas valuable to the organisation. Don’t create a pet project receptacle.

Innovation centres that are not aligned to the business’s strategic goals and are not accountable against business impact measures usually fail within 24 months or, at the very least, become the focus of an infectious cynicism within the organisation.


02 | Take a long-term outlook

This isn’t a ‘project’, it’s an organisational change so only embark on this journey if you’re willing and able to make a long-term commitment (think 5 years). Consider the business impact you want, and be committed to invest accordingly. Lofty ambitions and low-level resources do not sit happily. Likewise, an open cheque-book leads to inefficiency and a lack of creative endeavour.


03 | Build ‘glass walls’, not a mystical fortress

Ringfence budget and resource but share and collaborate broadly. Successful innovation centres are able to plan and execute based on committed resources. Don’t treat the budget as discretionary — you’ll end up paying people to rework plans, rather than deliver real stuff to market.

Having some work separation from the day-to-day of the business is necessary too — that’s what allows an unconflicted focus on strategic goals beyond business as usual. That being said, it’s vital to maintain connectivity and communication with core business. Without this, you risk losing focus on the of the business units’ needs, miss out on expertise to solve presenting issues, and can disenfranchise the business making the ultimate aim of getting to market a battle within the organisation… when the battle should be outside.

We work with a consumer goods innovation centre for a global business who achieve this by the team having two desks — one at the innovation centre and one within the business at the organisation’s Head Office. As a result, the team have the distance they need to incubate, but remain known and in conversation with the business, allowing them to involve their business expert colleagues in proactively moving solutions forward.


04 | Create senior accountability and minimise bureaucracy

Create a framework to enable innovation, not slow it down. Too many times we’ve been asked to diagnose why speed to market is too long, or to help unblock an innovation process. What we’ve invariably found is an innovation team spending the majority of their time managing internal politics, and approval processes. The solution is two-fold. Firstly, push decision-making down and manage risk by reporting. Secondly, make sure there’s genuine accountability and sponsorship at a senior level — teams without access and influence will always struggle to make meaningful progress.


05 | Design for your organisation, not against it

That said, resist the temptation to build a ‘start-up culture’ your organisation will ultimately crush. Many innovation centres are set up in response to what leaders see as the organisations culture and constraints. And while putting some distance between the organisation and the innovation function may help move solutions in the short term, these teams can also operate under a false premise that those constraints aren’t waiting for them further down the road. Successful innovation centres embrace the reality of the organisation they are set up to serve, constraints and all, to create solutions that are fit to thrive within the scale and complexity of their host.


06 | Hire masters of the ecosystem not lone geniuses

Successful innovation requires a variety of expertise and specialisms at different times — from design thinking experts and formulation experts, to business modelling analysts. Correspondingly, successful leaders of innovation centres know how to galvanise the right expertise at the right times. The leader of your innovation centre is likely have a track record of making innovation happen and is a master at assembling the right skills and orchestrating collaboration to get the job done. Don’t hire the person who thinks they can do everything themselves.


07 | Develop or adopt agile innovation processes

Make sure you build the skills, tools and processes for fast and effective experimentation. If your processes are lengthy, expensive box ticking exercises, you’re wasting resource and hampering progress. TescoLabs has set up easy access to local consumers who are able to take a product one morning and feedback on it the next. This agile innovation methodology and behaviour serves to quickly turn their hypotheses into actionable knowledge. Don’t get all purist about process — it’s there as tool to help not to dictate. We were recently told of an internal design thinking team that had 6 prototyped high ideas destined for success but refused to move any of them forward because their process called for each idea to respond to single opportunity.


08 | Invest in true strategic partnerships

Innovation is no longer a closed system confined to walls of the corporation. Progressive innovation centres forge partnerships — formal and informal outside their organisation. In HBR’s ongoing analysis of P&G’s innovation approach, it reports that over a third of all P&G products now have elements that originated externally, R&D productivity has increased by 60% and success rates have doubled while costs of development have fallen. Organisations we work with collaborate externally in different ways — from retail groups and academic institutions through to suppliers and individual experts. Remember, partnerships work by being valuable to both sides — be prepared to reciprocate.


09 | Design physical space to enable the work

This principle deliberately comes late on in our list — too often organisations get stuck into first because it’s a visible and exciting manifestation of ‘innovation happening’. We and those we spoke to for this article (and no doubt yourself) have witnessed the building of ‘showrooms’ whose main purpose is hosting tours and making impressions on visitors. One of our clients went as far as to describe their first innovation centre as the ‘museum of innovation’, a place designed to make senior management feel innovative but did not have a single story of impact to share after three years.

First and foremeost, design your physical space to foster the type of working styles and behaviours you want to see in your team.


10 | Engineer some quick wins

Success is not launching your innovation centre, it’s launching something strong to market. Build momentum and your ‘sales story’ by delivering and socialising some early success — it will help the organisation as a whole believe in and support the value of your innovation centre. Without this organisational support, the centre’s job will at best be harder, and ultimately become untenable.

On assuming a new role leading an innovation centre, one of our clients had us tackle a challenge for a business unit with a pressure to launch something in 18 months in a very active marketplace. The organization may not have ranked this opportunity number one, but his decision to tackle it first quickly delivered a new product to market with another on the way for a sizeable business unit. This allowed him to demonstrate immediate impact even when some larger projects were progressing along slower timelines in parts of the organization where he knew the nature of large teams would ultimately slow things down. This team is now four years old, growing in headcount and has proven itself to be a key engine of growth within the organisation.


So that’s it — our learnings and those of our clients on how to engineer your innovation centre for success (or as much as we can squeeze into a blog anyway). And, if you’re serious about this, the success is worth the effort — an unconflicted and uncompromised focus on strategic opportunities for the business, accelerated learning and confidence to launch to market, unparalleled consumer closeness and knowledge, the development of broader organisational capabilities, a magnet for attracting and retaining talent, a stronger proposition to valuable external collaborators… and, of course, a very meaningful contribution to your business goals.

If this has got you thinking, and it would be helpful to discuss developing the innovation capability of your own organisation, get in touch with usWe’re always happy to talk to people who are committed to making innovation happen and work better for their business.


Kiran Wood
Kiran Wood has been helping businesses strategise, innovate new products and rejuvenate brands for over 20 years. Her track record for creating impact spans sectors and geographies with clients as diverse as BP, Unilever, PayPal, Waitrose and Abu Dhabi Media Company. Over this time, she’s also delivered progressive innovation practices and talent strategies, and coached many innovation practitioners. Kiran is MD of Propellerfish — an innovation agency based in London and Singapore.

Alex Marquez
Alex is the founder of Propellerfish, a company that helps organisations turn strategy into the products, services and business models that move them forward in the real world.


Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams have helped build innovation centers for multinationals in the US, Europe and Asia.

Human Centred Design

On Insights For Innovation

Over the past 8 years, Propellerfish teams have found that innovation projects need more context and closeness than traditional research is designed to deliver. As a result, a Propellerfish project might involve more time spent in field, the involvement of street photographers and film makers, and a core belief that solving problems in the real world means doing research in the real world. This article is a glimpse into how and why our teams work the way they do.

First, a story.

On a project aimed at inventing mobile technology for emerging markets, consumers talked to us often about space. People in the lower and even middle classes in places like India, China, Philippines and Thailand shared most (if not all) of their living space with their family. As a result, they had little physical space to themselves. They believed that personal space was an important ingredient to nurturing an individual identity. In the absence of space, their mobile phones became their last respite for nurturing a private self.


 A consumer in Thailand shares her secret dream of becoming a pop star after we found this photo of her Idol audition while looking through her phone.


It’s one of those insights that shines a spotlight on an opportunity, but we needed more. Our team was designing devices that would be used in the context of a whole host of human and environmental factors. They would be sold in street side mobile shops, stowed in cluttered handbags, used to text one-handed from the back of a motorcycle, survive heat and dusty air, compensate for spotty data connections, hide inappropriate photos and video from parents and juggle 2–3 SIM cards. Designing the right device meant designing with a user insight in mind but also designing around a constellation of factors that influence a product’s success in the real world.


A home made cash control solution sheds light on the challenges of managing home finances in larger multi-generational households during a project aimed at designing mobile financial services for the rural poor.


These types of projects result in rich imagery and video which teams find inspiring, but beyond inspiration this approach to research is rooted in necessity: innovation projects need more context than traditional market research is designed to deliver.


Market research is a verbal art.

Market research was born in the newspapers of the 1820s, championed by ad agencies in the 1940s, and has evolved as a primarily verbal discipline. The primary stimulus is a question that is asked, data points are usually verbal responses and most qualitative research reports share recommendations supported by quotes. Words are great at bringing opportunities into focus, but creating products and services for the real world calls for both insight and context.


Great insight work should both show and tell: Photographer Tavepong Pratoomwong helps Propellerfish put real world context around an insight into the social side of personal devices in Bangkok.

Spotting an opportunity is a great start

Defining an opportunity for a product or a service calls for a deep human insight into the values and mental models that drive how people think and behave. Those insights are valuable and give projects important direction, but those insights alone are not enough to develop successful products and services.


Context takes teams go from opportunity to solution

The transition from an opportunity to a product or service requires a more granular understanding of the human and environmental factors that influence a solution’s performance in the real world. A detailed picture helps innovation teams understand the points of interaction between a user, a solution and the environment to create products and services that are a better fit.


A Propellerfish team organises the key factors around an insight during a consumer electronics innovation project.


At the end of the day, innovation is a contextual practice and the key role of innovation research is to bring that context into focus. That rich picture makes for inspiring presentations, but it is a necessary part of designing solutions with the real world in full focus. This is the only way innovation teams can deliver products and services that add real value to people’s lives in the real world.


Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.