Who: Karen Ward, founder of Curiosity Inc.
What: Hands-on market research. The firm was founded after Ms. Ward visited Denmark and decided the approach at traditional market-research firms was too linear.
When a client asked Karen Ward to investigate the decision-making process that consumers go through when they are buying a vehicle, she could have simply asked survey participants some scripted questions. Instead, the founder of Curiosity Inc., a research and innovation company, climbed into the passenger side of dozens of vehicles—vans, compact cars, trucks—and spent time on the road with each person.
If they drove to get groceries, she visited the supermarket with them. If they were commuting to work, she went along for the ride. She watched the way they settled into their seats, learned why the location of cup holders can matter to a buyer as much as an engine's horsepower, and determined how important a fancy radio is in the driver's decision to buy.
“Linear minds want to come at questions very directly,” she says. “We always get to the direct question, but we never start there. There's so much to be learned from someone's context—their habits, their patterns. We let that context do as much storytelling as we can.”
Ms. Ward provides a critical, and often missing, communication link between businesses and their customers by gently teasing the truth out of test subjects. “One of the things I get frustrated with … is that if a customer doesn't offer up something that supports [the client's]point of view, then they think the customer is stupid,” she says. “This is not the case—you need to accept they have a different point of view and start asking more questions. There are always more questions.”
Ms. Ward founded Curiosity Inc. after a brief stint in advertising, where she was frequently put off by the lack of qualitative research about products. Already armed with a social sciences degree from Queen's University, she looked to Europe for a postgraduate program that would help her not only to perform market research, but to make use of the information she gathered.
The search led her to Denmark's 180 Academy, a school that promises to teach students how to “collect, create, commercialize and collaborate.” She registered, flying back and forth to Europe while still running her business. She could have received similar schooling in North America, she concedes, but she wanted a European point of view.
“I needed the tools to be able to lead our team so we could expand beyond research to bring our findings to life,” she says. “It was important to me to see how things are done in cultures around the world—we worked in Denmark, Dubai and South Africa—and to get ideas on how to do things differently in North America.”
There are a lot of intangible factors at play in doing successful market research, Ms. Ward says. It helps if you're friendly, curious and nosy, and although Ms. Ward is all of those things, she helps herself along by altering her style of dress and manner of speaking to reflect her interview subjects. “Someone may say something shocking and politically very incorrect that I would never say personally, and I would never reply using my politically correct language in the conversation,” she says. “You always reflect their language back so they feel validated and comfortable to keep going.”
Large corporations hire Ms. Ward in the early stages of product development, sometimes before a product has even been conceived. Her field research can convince a company that a product is viable, or force it to change track and approach the situation in an unexpected manner.
When a European toy maker hired Ms. Ward to find out what North American children were looking for in a multi-piece playset, she used a recruitment agency to locate a dozen children, aged eight to 11, who would spend time explaining to her how they preferred to play with toys. She tried to arrange home interviews but, in the end, her deadline forced her to settle for an office with soft, cozy chairs and lots of natural light.
“We wanted to make sure there wasn't a big Dr. Evil-style boardroom table and that the room was small,” she says. “We were able to sit on the floor, and have lots of stimulating things for them to look at as they talked and played.”
Hours of playtime and conversation yielded unequivocal results: Not only did the kids want playsets that pit good against evil, they wanted the evil characters to be really evil and the good characters to be really good.
“We talked about the toys they already play with, and showed them some really loose concepts,” Ms. Ward says. “We had the kids create deeper stories, and it turned out they like good-versus-evil in a much deeper, darker way than designers thought initially. Also, we found out which kind of monsters they thought were cool.”