We have all seen the huge shift in survey research, with companies like Qualtrics driving survey-based decision-making organization-wide. Today, the research industry is undergoing another major shift in the qualitative research realm. Not only is there more consumer-friendly technology to conduct qualitative research but the emergence of automation and machine learning has made getting qualitative insights notably faster and more affordable.

The use of agile qualitative research is being driven by companies like American Family Insurance and Sub-Zero, which are looking to apply lean and agile principles to accelerate marketing and innovation. There is a lot to be gained by getting to market faster with innovative ideas and companies today are feeling the competitive pressure. In fact, a recent study indicated that at the current churn rate, about half of S&P 500 companies will be replaced over the next 10 years,1 suggesting that without faster change, even big companies are at risk.

Teams applying agile to qualitative research are looking to expand their focus from:

  • large-scale research to smaller experiments;
  • rigid surveys to more unstructured discussion;
  • quantification to customer discovery;
  • learning “what” to learning “why” and “how;” and
  • static reporting to collaborative learning.

While automated surveys have made quantitative research faster and more affordable, they don’t address the key principles driving agile qualitative. For example, automated surveys cannot replace moderated in-person research during early development.

Agile qualitative research tools use the latest technology to create a mix of moderated and unmoderated engagement that delivers high-quality, in-context research, similar to ethnographic or other in-person research methods. And agile qualitative tools can scale in size to replace survey research typically done later in development cycles, such as early-stage concept testing, ad testing or product field trials.

What is agile qualitative research?

Agile qualitative research is a modern approach to online qualitative that focuses on driving informed decisions rather than simply driving insights. Traditional online qualitative takes several weeks to recruit, extensive work to design and administer and can cost as much or more than in-person research. Agile qualitative typically fits in a one-to-two-week cycle including design, recruiting, engagement and analysis and often mixes one-on-one and group activities to build empathy, capture experiences and iterate on solutions. Agile qualitative also uses a mix of human and machine-enabled reporting to deliver daily insights and decisions on concept iteration, often for about half the cost of in-person research.

Some key differentiators of agile qualitative from traditional in-person qualitative include:

Instant recruiting: Agile requires recruiting that can be done in hours or days rather than weeks. Thanks to the rise of the Internet and social media – and all the data that comes with it – agile research providers can quickly find and recruit qualitative research participants based on what interests they have, what products they’ve purchased or what brands they have engaged with online. Some providers have built qualitative-exclusive panels that allow for even deeper profiling and assurance of faster and higher-quality participant engagement.

Collaborative engagement: Agile qualitative often happens in social media-style communities that enable participants to share their pain points, brainstorm solutions and rate each other’s ideas. Teams can use the answers they initially receive to influence follow-up questions, adapting their approach based on their audiences’ responses. This provides them with rich and frequent feedback that helps shape new offerings.

Iterative activities: Agile qualitative gives marketers the ability to conduct research with a group of targeted individuals several times over days or weeks. Instead of relying on a snapshot in time, marketers benefit from the ability to use real-time input to adjust quickly and optimize solutions they show participants based on their input.

In-context learning: Most agile qualitative tools are mobile-friendly, making it easy for participants to give answers and feedback in their own environments. This type of sharing often leads to richer and more honest answers, particularly because it enables customers to share their experiences as they happen. They can take photos and videos to capture shopping or usage and respond to new ideas in the context of their current behavior.

Rapid decision-making: With agile qualitative tools, teams are able to make informed decisions quickly. Instant reporting capabilities make it incredibly easy for researchers to identify key learning and report their findings to the rest of the team.

Overall, agile qualitative is structured to help remove the guesswork from the smaller daily decisions teams make while developing products and marketing campaigns so they make better, more informed decisions more quickly.

How has technology driven the growth of agile qualitative research?

For starters, new machine learning and AI-based social media technology has made it easier for technology companies to pre-identify and recruit highly targeted participants for their research. These technologies, combined with efforts to build exclusive qualitative research panels, have drastically reduced the time it takes to find high-quality participants.

Managing qualitative research has also gotten easier. Agile platforms allow teams to choose between moderated and unmoderated activities, reducing the overhead of collecting qualitative research while simultaneously reducing social desirability bias.

Technology has also enabled better reporting. Rather than having to dig through long transcripts, teams can apply natural language processing to identify themes and sentiment. They can also tag key learnings as they observe and interact with consumers, making it possible to generate instant daily summary reports. Technology-enabled human transcription is also being applied to videos to make it easy to find key quotes and create turn-key clip reels that drive home research results.

Quite simply, agile qualitative has transformed a process that used to take a month or more and cost $25,000 to a process that can be accomplished in one week for around $10,000. Instead of wasting time and money on surveys only to find out your concept doesn’t have a strong enough appeal, teams can now optimize early and increase their odds of success the first time around. As a result, marketing and product development timelines are reduced.

How does agile qualitative research fit with agile development?

Every business knows what it’s like to realize you’ve made a mistake – you end up spending a ton of time and resources moving a product or initiative in the wrong direction. To limit the chances of making the wrong decisions, companies are increasingly adopting an agile approach to the way they do business.

In 2001, a group of engineers published the agile manifesto in response to the outdated methodologies that pervaded software development at the time.2 The manifesto has four key values:

  1. Individuals and interactions vs. processes and tools.
  2. Working software vs. comprehensive documentation.
  3. Customer collaboration vs. contract negotiation.
  4. Responding to a change vs. following a plan.

Instead of following a detailed plan put together months before and not responding to new developments or market changes, agile teams are flexible. They are also fast-moving. Agile developers work in “sprints,” which are two-to-four-week periods where the team works on a solution to a small and clearly defined problem. The goal is to roll out an updated product that consumers want quickly.

Over the past several years, agile has moved outside of the software world. Today, all kinds of departments at forward-thinking companies – from customer experience to marketing – take an agile approach.

By applying agile qualitative instead of in-person interviews, American Family Insurance was able to increase the frequency of customer experience research by 10 times. Sub-Zero was able to increase from 10 percent of their field trials including qualitative iteration to over 90 percent.

When businesses apply agile principles to qualitative research, they limit the chance that they will make costly, time-consuming wrong decisions. They build a solution more quickly and learn from consumers as they go, finding and fixing problems earlier in development.

What results are companies seeing from agile qualitative research?

Some specific outcomes companies have seen from applying agile qualitative include:

Driving lower-risk decisions: Agile qualitative enables teams to quickly find out what works – and, more importantly, what does not. This allows teams to improve their concepts before validation testing.

Providing a more comprehensive viewpoint: Agile qualitative helps teams build empathy, capture in-context experiences and iterate on ideas all in the same study. This approach allows teams to push forward more quickly than static research.

Increase consumer-centric decision-making: By being both faster and more affordable, agile research empowers teams to bring consumer perspective to more decisions, relying less on senior management direction.

Faster implementation: Many innovations promise huge returns or the destruction of the status quo. But oftentimes implementing and using these “groundbreaking” methods or platforms can cost six or even seven figures. The inherent bite-sized approach to agile qualitative is quite different. It means you can do a proof of concept now and benefit right away.

The next result of agile qualitative is it helps organizations make better decisions more quickly – a win-win for customers and companies alike. Consumers get relevant products and marketing campaigns, while companies benefit from unlocking new revenue streams by delivering the right products and messages. By testing multiple times during development, teams build confidence through repeated consumer engagement rather than relying on a single quantitative study.

With agile principles and qualitative research technology, companies can move forward faster and with confidence. That’s the ticket to a more effective go-to-market strategy, a happier customer base and, ultimately, a healthier bottom line.


1 www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction/

2 http://agilemanifesto.org/