Principles of Creative Development Research

09.20.2010 / Author: Sabine Stork

Consumer research is often seen as a necessary evil rather than a real contributor to the creative process — unfairly so we’d argue at Thinktank. We strongly believe that well conceived and executed creative development research can both ground and enrich the creative process. But — and admittedly, it’s a big but — you need a ‘virtuous triangle’ to achieve this: good thinking from sympathetic researchers, enlightened clients and agencies/creatives willing to listen!

With a great co-operative team in place there are some guiding principles for creative development research that could really help you to get further:

1. Consumers are a great resource in creative development work — but they should not be judge and jury!

Consumers can be a great help in the creative process, they can fill us in on context, can give us their associations/overall impressions of creative work and how it works with their brand perceptions. They can also highlight disconnects and potential misunderstandings especially if you’re working across cultures. But let’s not treat them as final judge on creative work, or worse — as art critics! Bad design research conducts a beauty parade, asks consumer opinion on detail they simply can’t have a productive opinion on or pays to much attention to minor aesthetics niggles. Good design research evaluates consumer opinions within the context of strategy and the Creative Brief and analyses rather than just ‘reports on’ “what they liked”

In co-creation we may work WITH consumers with a creative bent to come to a creative solution — this is a rather different process to ‘normal’ creative development research.

2. Research Can Help you to Get the Basics Right

At Thinktank we believe that research, certainly qualitative research, is best used early in the process, during strategic development, and to feed into the Creative Brief. Here consumer research is great at establishing the ground rules — sector dynamics, brand relationships, potential gaps in the market etc.

Here both traditional and online methods have their place and can complement each other. Focus groups are great to understand dynamics, online can be used to collect verbal and visual impressions — eg via ethnographic videos, diaries, scrapbooks etc. Whatever the method though great analysis from good research brains can’t be over-estimated.

This type of research ground work can be invaluable, especially where creatives are not totally immersed in the market they’re workingin and ideally feeds into a process of inspiration.

3. The Creative Brief Should be Everyone’s Yardstick

Later stage consumer research on work in progress or finished creative needs to be analysed and interpreted according to objectives laid down in a Creative Brief. This ensures that research uses the right parameters when evaluating consumer response — eg do we want to fit in with or challenge brand and sector perceptions, can we live with or even expect a degree of alienation etc.

4. Context and Stimlus are Key

Logos, designs or ads are not experienced within a vacuum in the real world — so neither should they be exposed in this way in research! Good research tries to recreate ‘real life’ contexts and will try to set the ‘scene’ — eg by interviewing ‘in situ’ or mocking up the relevant environment in a mood video.

It’s always worth involving the researchers in stimulus considerations — do we want to show packs on shelves, next to competitors’, do we want to place company logos on mocked up collateral etc. — your friendly researcher will be able to advise and will have a view on what will/will not work for consumers!

5. It’s not Just about What they say — Analysis and Interpretation Are Crucial

A lot of qualitative research is done in group discussions (focus groups) and a lot of clients can be misled by what they see/hear. Consumers don’t and can’t always express directly what they feel (nor do they always understand their own motivations) — tonality, body language, even the ‘temperature’ in the room can be rather different from what is being heard through a one way mirror. Online buzz often just generates opinions from enthusiasts and does not tell you about those who don’t care . . .

Online pre- or post-tasks or auto-ethnography can throw a different light on what is being said within a group forum . . .

in all, research findings are not necessarily simply observable but need to be interpreted by researchers. Ideally they should understand both your objectives as creatives and consumer dynamics and will be able to cross-reference findings against experience with other brands.

So — to sum up — you’ll get the most out of research which . . . treats consumers with respect — but not as judge and jury; sets the context for consumers and keeps it real; understands the objectives of the creative and uses them as yardstick for analysis and interprets findings against a database of other brand comms — and of course is sympathetic and helpful rather than intent on shooting creative ideas down. Here’s to great co-operation!

About the Author

Sabine Stork is a founding partner of London based qualitative research agency Thinktank. She works on international strategic and creative Briefs for clients like Nokia, Johnson & Johnson and Expedia. The upsides of her job include a licence to be shamelessly nosy, eaves dropping on everyone from mums in Beijing to business men in Belgrade and more than make up for the downsides like having to defend the much maligned focus group to creative types! In her spare time Sabine enjoys philosophy, film and her daily quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

Contact Sabine at Thinktank:


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