What investors need to know about research and inspiration in the COVID-19 era

Companies become industry leaders because of sparks: Ideas that lead to innovation, which shakes up a category. Apple changed the world when it realized that people wanted a PC in their pocket and it had to feel and look good.

Research makes sparks possible. In the modern economy, “eureka” moments are rare, and product-market fit like the iPhone, PayPal, and so many others are the outcome of sparks of innovation, yes — but more importantly, rigorous research. People still have great ideas in the shower, but most of the time, big advances happen after countless hours of market research, A-B testing and the like.

As one might expect, the pandemic has forced research online. The companies that figure out remote research will find success and profitability more quickly than those who are still struggling to. Remote research will remain the rule even as the worst of the pandemic mercifully ends, as our lives will still be upended for months or even years. For those investing in tech companies, newly honed remote research capabilities are a critical yet undervalued asset and a stealth indicator of company health.

The companies that figure out remote research will find success and profitability more quickly than those who are still struggling to.

The pandemic has been a major challenge for good corporate research. Most researchers — myself included — historically relied on in-real-life, face-to-face conversations with current and potential customers. Now that 2021 is underway, the onus is on organizations to explain how they’ve figured out the remote research problem. They’ve had 10 months to do so, and if they haven’t, they better have a plan for how they’re going to fix it.

Investors, executives and teams from the bottom-up must see — and demand — that companies get research right. Billions of dollars ride on it. No one wants to be Quibi, where good consumer research would have made all the difference.

There are ways to recreate effective research techniques digitally. Leaders should ask what tools researchers are using; what hacks they’ve developed to serve their needs in new and different ways. Are researchers using collaboration tools to draw out ideas and get to know people better? For example, I ask for photo collages of a person’s home life to help understand a person’s context. The next question should be how the research team is using these tools. Are they just giving a presentation, or are they using these tools in an open-ended fashion to spur dynamic conversation? I often use a digital whiteboard to provide a personal touch with real-time drawing and diagramming, which can be fun and even silly. It helps people let their guard down.

Next, leaders need to make sure the company is incorporating research into the design process, regardless of the collaboration difficulties the pandemic has imposed. Researchers and the design team need to answer questions like:

  • Is research just a box to check? Or are designers and developers constantly referring to it?
  • Is the research team properly elevated, ideally reporting into the chief product officer and sharing insights frequently with the executive team to provide a sharper sense of consumer desires?
  • Are researchers given the freedom to learn more about the hacks that consumers are implementing in today’s unusual reality?
  • Are designers and developers using the research as a jumping-off point, and do they have permission to design and create in new ways?

In all cases, research should be a core dimension of good product decisions, of sound digital product design and development. If it isn’t, organizations should make changes in 2021.

There is quantitative data to back up this statement. According to InVision’s industry research, only 10% of 2,300 teams surveyed deploy the most design-mature research practices, which increase speed-to-market, revenue and valuation. Only 7% say they rely on customer reviews and co-create products alongside their customers (important research practices).

Put more starkly, it’s likely the companies that are getting investment are not using research in the best possible way. Fewer than 10% of thousands of teams surveyed elevate design research. That means fewer than 10% of organizations are able to meet today’s remote research challenges easily, adapt to new realities quickly and succeed in this extreme time of change. In the throes of a pandemic, that is a problem.

Even after COVID, companies that thrive — or even simply survive — will be design-mature and digital-first. They will derive more of their revenue, interact with customers and gain new research insights digitally. In such an economy, technical and engineering prowess are critical, but all the technical ability in the world is worthless without understanding what consumers want a company to create. It is worthless without feedback. It is worthless without insight that leads to innovation.

It is worthless without a mature design process that uses research to validate, understand and turn the spark of an idea into reality.

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