How online qual can sharpen the ‘fuzzy-front end’ of the NPD process

Tom Woodnutt

Tom Woodnutt

Feeling Mutual

Tom Woodnutt is Founder of Feeling Mutual, the agile online and mobile qualitative research specialists. He helps clients and agencies run global studies and offers training in the space. Tom has been a Digital Skills trainer for the Association of Qualitative Researchers (AQR) and is a regular speaker at industry conferences, including the MRS, MRMW and IleX.

The evocatively titled ‘fuzzy-front-end’ of the NPD process has been coined to reflect the general messiness and lack of clarity that goes into the initial ideas phase of new product design (Kim and Wilemon1 , 2002, Koen et al. 2, 2001). It can often be the lengthiest phase, taking up to 50% of the total development time3. Online qualitative conversations can help companies wipe the fuzz from their brows, by providing fast-flowing, on-going and inspiring insights.

Some of the most seminal models mapping the optimal NPD process have tended to gloss this early idea-creation phase (Katz 2011)4. Urban and Hauser’s Design and Marketing of New Products (1980)5 focuses more on marketing. Similarly, the discovery phase in Cooper’s “Winning at New Products” (1986, 1993, 2001) 6, is less concerned with the evaluation of the early concepts and more focused on reviews at later stages in the cycle. A similar assessment can be made of Wheelwright and Clark’s ‘Revolutionizing Product Development’ (1992) 7, Michael McGrath’s ‘Setting the PACE in Product Development’ (1996) 8 and MITS ‘Center for Innovation in Product Development’ (2005) 9. All these models focus on the process after the initial ideas have already been had.

It is at this point where online qual can have a huge impact in determining the quality of NPD ideas. All successful NPD ideas meet people’s needs or solve their problems. This is exactly what online qual can be so agile at elucidating. Online auto-ethnography, means that consumers can keep an on-going record of their experience with products, highlighting issues, frustrations and moments of joy (through written accounts and self-taken video). Answers can be probed and tasks set to explore specific issues and hypotheses. Fresh, private responses can be explored in one-on-one conversations and ideas can be evolved and developed in group-discussion formats.

The time pressure on idea generation can also be better met through online qualitative. Recruitment can be easier because of the virtual and convenient nature of online. New iterations of stimulus can be presented to people as soon as they are available. And analysis is already under-way during the moderation, since researchers can develop hypotheses as they read through and probe on people’s answers. Moreover, transcripts are made instantly available without the cost and time of using professional services.

The culture clash between marketers who are focused on insight and engineers who are interested in spec.4 can be reduced as the video and verbatim output of the research can tell the consumer’s story in a more human and engaging way because of the multi-media feedback.

All in all, online qualitative conversations can help renew the New Product Development process and make the fuzzy-front-end….less fuzzy.

1 – Kim, J. and Wilemon, D. (2002), Sources and assessment of complexity in NPD projects. R&D 
 Management, 33 (1), pp. 16-30.

2 – Koen et al. (2001), Providing clarity and a common language to the ‘fuzzy front end’. Research 
 Technology Management, 44 (2), pp.46-55

3 – Smith, Preston G. and Reinertsen, Donald G. (1998) Developing Products in Half the Time, 2nd 
 Edition, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1998.

4 – Jerry Katz: Rethinking the product development Funnel (2011)

5 – Urban, Glen and John R. Hauser, 1980. Design and Marketing of New Products, p. 33. Englewood
 Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

6 – Cooper, Robert G., 2001. Winning at New Products, p. 130. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

7 – Wheelwright, Steven C. and Kim B. Clark, 1992. Revolutionizing Product Development, p. 
 112.New York, NY: The Free Press.

8 – McGrath, Michael E., 1996. Setting the PACE® in Product Development, p. 38. Boston, MA: 

9 – Hauser, John R., 2008. Note on Product Development, p. 3. Cambridge, MA: MIT Sloan 

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