Research tools for innovation

Marrying needs with methods

It’s a little known fact that Maslow admitted he was wrong about needs.

In fact, there's a scale of need in marketing, and different types of research suit each.

There’s a lot more than focus groups and basic semiotics.

In this section you’ll understand which methods fit these needs, and the different project types.

The four types of need

There are four types of need.  And let's use coffee as an example – think of the evolution of coffee and its ‘disintermediation’.

Overtbetter tasting instant coffee

Covert – better ‘on the run’ coffee cups

Latent – creating a coffee culture

Created – creating a home hot beverage system

Overt need

So let’s understand these needs. Overt needs are ones that people can readily tell you about, and let’s stick with the coffee example.

If you asked people how to improve coffee, they'd tell you about improving flavours, which you can test using standard research techniques like focus groups and depths.

Covert need

Now imagine the time when there weren't any good home coffee machines.

A covert need is one where behaviour points to the answer, but there’s a problem gap as the need isn’t being plugged.

Before coffee take-aways with lids, there were foam cups with a lid and no opening – but there was a need to stop spillage, it just wasn’t obvious to people. .

If you’d asked people in focus groups, they’d most likely just say they were annoying, but wouldn’t have come up with a solution.

This type of need is best understood by ethnography, followed by concept development.

Latent need

These are identifiable opportunities that are observed by looking at the data on behaviours with fans of a category.  And you’ve got to do two things.

You’ve got to look at how fans of a category are behaving:  If you’d done that around coffee you would have found that they liked making filter coffee, and had a machine at home.

You’d also find they were fans of coffee in countries with a superior coffee culture.

But it’s not enough to point out what ‘edgy’ people are doing: You’ve got to correlate it with other data.

In this case, sales of ‘more interesting’ instant coffee were starting to rise rapidly – putting these two pieces together you have the basis of a latent need which would flow into becoming coffee shops.

Created need

Created needs are the hardest to tap into.

They're needs that no-one has asked for: it’s here where Henry Ford said "If I had asked what people want from transport, they'd have asked for a faster horse."

Well this is unfair.  Consumers can co-create new products and services.

If they're people who are trained in de Bono techniques and then asked to do some structured ideation.

We’ve done this work and it’s lead to the launch of drinks that outsell Coke. 



The table below shows how you use the different types of qual to meet each need.  We'll discuss each qual type below.


Different types of qual

Is qual just focus groups, ethnography and depth interviews?

Yes, those are tried and tested methods, but they're far from the only means of enquiry.

This is your guide to understanding qual at a wider level and it relates to ‘created needs’.


Focus groups

The myth

Focus groups will magically reveal deep insights with the right moderator and ‘anyone’, with reasonable social skills, can moderate.

The second myth is:

Focus groups are scientific: that the moderator is a ‘blank canvas’ who doesn’t impose their views, so the results are unbiased. 

This isn’t the case.  Focus groups are a core part of research.  

There’s no doubt about that.

But there are three things that really need to be dealt to get the most out of this method.


    The truth

    The first thing is that we have to remember is that a focus group is an artificial social situation.

    Now why does that matter?

    In the real world, people form their attitudes and opinions around their peers, not a group of strangers.

    And people in focus groups are talking about things they normally don’t think about for a long time. (Unless they are evangelists for a category – say a coffee fan.)

    This can mean people tell you things that aren’t true, due to the environment.

    The way to tackle this is to balance ‘stranger groups’ with friendship groups where natural social dynamics are in play.

    The second thing you need to do is to find out if your category is best analysed via psychology (largely individual) or social psychology.

    What do we mean by this?

    A car brand is a way to communicate with a wider audience, a brand of kitchen towel is not.

    So you must choose the mode of analysis that reflects the category, and which is proven.

    The third thing is that analysis using ‘pop psychology’, or instinct, does not allow you to get the most of what’s being said.  You must choose a formal proven analytical model that fits. 

      3 step process

      1. Reflect on the balance of using focus groups with ‘friendship groups’, especially where the category is about communicating identity.

      2. Ensure that you are using analytical models that are rooted in the science of behaviour, and are proven, or the results become the subject of an argument about pop psychology and opinion.

      3. Wherever possible, use another means of enquiry to cross-reference focus groups.  This could be semiotics or ethnography, but two lenses give a better chance of finding the truth, and three are even better. 



      The myth

      Ethnography can be done by almost anyone and involves watching people and that’s all there is to it: there is no real skill in it.

      As a result it’s frequently discounted in terms of it’s usefulness, at least in part because clients don’t get to ‘see it’ as they do with focus groups.

      The second myth is that

      You can just ‘add on’ a bit of time for ethnography.

      Ethnography is a discipline and it requires someone with true ethnographic training, someone who knows what to look for and what not to look for.

      They see what others don’t see because they are trained to a high level in observation, and as a result, they get understanding that others don’t.

      So don’t send juniors off to the supermarket for a couple of hours and dub it ethnography!


        The truth

        Ethnography is a discipline which needs to be undertaken by an ethnographer or anthropologist.

        It’s very good at unearthing problems or opportunities that people don’t remember in focus groups, i.e. latent or covert needs.

        If you think of Dyson, did anyone ask for a bladeless fan?

        No it’s not something you think about unless you are in situ.

        Neither are many incremental improvements that can be made to services, brands or products memorable enough to recall in focus groups – they are only visible from observation.

        Most product designers spend hours, literally, studying their potential market to understand the hidden problems.

        Don’t let ethnography be down-graded to a tag along extra.

        Done properly it is at least as useful as focus groups, and they compliment each other. 

        3 step process

        1. First, you need to find people who are truly open to being observed, and ask if you can record their lives.  This might mean living with a family for a few days.

        2. You use the ethnography videos to understand people’s lives more deeply, and uncover problems.

        3. Option – you then put the videos up which capture different markets and ask people to identify with the group that’s most similar to them.  This becomes a great starting point to do focus groups.



        Co-creation has become a buzz word in marketing and research.

        The first myth is that

        Research based ‘co-creation’ is focus groups with post-its. 

        True co-creation is an on-going dialogue between an audience and a company.  There has to be structured creativity process.

        The second myth is that

        Consumers can’t be creative.

        This simply isn’t true.  There are 250 multi-nationals who work with audiences on an-on-going basis.

        What’s true is that no-one is as creative as they could be without a form of training. 

        The myth


        Co-creation based research has to have, as a basis, a stage where you train people in creativity techniques.

        Co-creative research is best done with people who are evangelists of your category, people who really care.

        You employ this type of research when you're looking for new answers that you know you would not come up with yourself: so being truly open is key.

        It operates at it’s best when clients think of customers who are VIP’s, who will be trained in creativity, and then moved into an on-going platform for dialogue.

        This is what true co-creation looks like. 

        The truth


        1. First you have to train people in creative techniques, you have to make them feel part of the team and ‘give’ to ‘get’.
        2. Then you run the co-creation to get ideas and put them up on a platform
        3. Option – Get the market to vote on the co-created concepts, build on them and get winners. 

        3 step Process


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