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Consumer research and its limitations...
main image Ron Romanik, Contributing Editor

Many graphic and structural designers make a useful distinction between exploration and validation. Though these professionals might be wary of letting consumer research define exploration, they are usually more than willing to admit research's valuable role in validating the effectiveness of new design ideas in their fullest expression.

The efficient use of research often benefits from recognizing the limits of what a researcher can learn and not over-interpreting results. Here are more best practices to follow when embarking on consumer research campaigns.

1. Identify what you hope to learn. Choosing a research method should first start with setting clear objectives. And get specific. What are the precise questions you're trying to answer? If you can't put the questions into words, it's unlikely that you'll know the answers when you see them.

2. Don't be research-driven. Use research in the right context. Research can inform the process, but it is dangerous to let research dictate or create design early in the process. Research can actually hold back a brand. Risk—averse companies tend to create research campaigns that reinforce preexisting attitudes and biases. Choosing which method to pursue will come down to weighing the pros and cons of each option against the objectives and the cost. Know beforehand whether or not you will get actionable results from your efforts.

3. Choose carefully. The type of research you should conduct is dependent on the brand and the risks associated with a change. Are you embarking on a major departure from what the brand has typically represented, or is it a small evolutionary change? A mix of qualitative and quantitative research is often advised in gauging the potential rewards—and risks—involved in a substantial revitalization project.

4. Know the limitations. Focus groups have limitations. Consumers don't understand their own motivations, and can rarely articulate them well. Also, focus groups often get dominated by a group "leader," and participants' responses become heavily influenced by that individual. Research requires great discipline to look at the right things the right way in the right context. Benchmark the consumer experience to gauge the success or failure of proposed packaging improvements or updates. Have ways to assess if your research is actually answering the questions you set out to answer.

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