The process of understanding something complicated begins with more questions than answers. When it comes to consumer insight work, the more we learn, the better our questions get and our best questions tend to be the ones we ask later in our discovery process. Great research responds to new learning. It snowballs, evolves and gets better over time. Yet the dogmas of traditional consumer insight work tend to ignore the power of questions we don’t yet know to ask.

On a project aimed at rethinking a mobile payment platform in India, our clients wanted help understanding why their current solution wasn’t working for their target female user and how they could pivot that solution into something that works.

We planned an intense week of research across about a dozen rural villages in Uttar Pradesh. After day 1, we realized something important: most of these users were illiterate, they did not have phones, and they did not manage home finances.

That night, we redesigned our fieldwork completely to understand what it would take to make mobile financial services work in this region. We broadened our focus from female users to include men since they were the ones with the phones, the home finance responsibility and literacy required to transact via mobile in these communities. We also tapped into local telco agents and street shops selling top up credit. These people knew more about the users than we could ever learn in a week.

Day 2 taught us that the idea of a mobile payment solution was attractive because paying bills was inefficient and took time away from earning a living. We also learned that telco agents had no interest in mobile finance because it required them to keep enough cash on hand for people to cash out and offered an insignificant payoff compared to the other things they sold.

Our week in field snowballed into our final day where we focused exclusively on telco agents in order to understand what we would need to offer them in order to make this commercially viable from their perspective.

A great research methodology responds to consumer insights you hadn’t expected to find

If we had stuck with our discussion guide, we would have come back with a fairly limited insight. Iterating on our methodology in real time meant we came back with consumer insights and principles teams can use to craft actual solutions.

Responsive Research Design puts structure around flexibility the iterative nature of great research. It allows projects to evolve in real time with protocols in place that ensure changes are made methodically by a team that knows what they’re doing.

Here are six things that Propellerfish teams do to help insight projects respond to new learning and get smarter over time.

01. Debrief early and often

Where possible, teams debrief in a standard format at the end of each day, if not after each interview. On global projects, we land a refined picture of the project after we complete fieldwork in each market. This emphasis on landing insights and solutions regularly means missing knowledge and new questions are raised before it is too late to address them.

02. Jump to incomplete solutions

We periodically challenge our teams to land what they’d do if they had to solve the challenge with only the data they captured on day 1. Sitting with an incomplete solution (perhaps a bit uncomfortably) helps teams understand which areas need further exploration so they can solve problems more confidently later in a project.

03. Build in time for less structured exploration

Avoid the temptation to over-schedule your time in market. Wandering streets with a translator can get you surprisingly far when it comes to addressing questions you hadn’t anticipated needing answers to before your consumer insight project started.

04. Engage the people who know your people early

Experts who know a lot about your user are people to speak to upfront. They can help you skip the basics and get more out of your time in field. If a pivot needs to be made to your methodology, you can make that happen early.

05. Hire locals

Global teams are great at piecing together a picture that cuts across markets, but it’s hard to get beneath the surface of a culture that isn’t your own. Hire someone local to keep you in check. These people don’t need to be researchers. We’ve hired our own respondents, friends, and translators to stick with us throughout our fieldwork to ensure we process consumer insight and tweak our methodology through a local lens .

06. Put experienced boots on the ground

It takes experience to know when and how to pivot a research methodology in field. We make sure every team has a leader capable of leading teams towards better research as research is unfolding.

Because insight projects are a learning process, our methodology around those projects should that respond to new learning. Responsive project design allows teams to evolve a project as they learn within structures that encourage the right evolution at the right time.

To learn more about our approach to consumer insight work, read our article on how innovation teams need a different approach to insights.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that closeness is the key to better insights.