I’m often asked how research can be applied in organisations to shape new products and services, particularly technology projects. During my time as Research Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts at Nesta, I wrote about research processes that can help project managers shape products, reduce risk and optimise around user needs.

Below are three relatively simple research methods that can be done at your desk, and don’t require big budgets or advanced technical skills.  You can make these as big or small as you need to, but it’s important to have a plan, be systematic, and maintain an open mind as you go.

Following these three steps can help you ensure your project is innovating on current practice. They can also help you to set achievable objectives and a realistic budget, and align your work with key communities and potential partners.

1. Analyse the competition

Ask yourself: What is already out there? How are we different?

Analysing the current ‘state of the art’ is a critical first step in determining if an idea has legs, and how it can innovate on what’s already out there. Before starting any development work, have a close look at what others are doing in this space - and how existing platforms could be repurposed. Take a look at organisations like yours in other countries, ask around, and try and identify comparable products or services in other industries.

It can be interesting to identify what ‘the competition’ are doing right – and what they could do better. Once again, it’s good to be systematic, and to try and get as much of the ‘inside scoop’ as possible (How much did it cost? What is their ‘niche’? How many people are actively using it?)

For example, the Royal Opera House conducted a ‘competitor audit’ to help them prioritise features for their mobile project, and what they liked about existing offerings that they wanted to build on.

Scanning the competition can help you refine and mould your concept, and identify exciting windows of opportunity. It can also help you identify useful platforms, software or channels that you could use, and people you could partner with.

2. Measure the potential

Ask yourself: Just how big is the opportunity? What can we realistically hope to achieve?

Before you start to work on detailed plans and budgets, it’s worth taking a step back to measure the potential, or if you are exploring a new business model, ‘size the market’.

From experience, I know how easy it is to over-estimate the potential user-base for a product or service, which can lead to disappointing project outcomes. If you’re building an app to promote concerts to young people in London, work out how many young people there are in London, what handsets they use and what disposable incomes they have.  If you’re going to promote it through the e-newsletter, work out how many people open the newsletter to give a sense of how many people you could reach.

For instance, artsdepot are segmenting the 65+ market in particular catchment areas, and making assumptions about conversion rates and sales potential to estimate the market for their ‘Silver Service’ membership scheme.

Remember that apps require someone to be aware of them, want them, have the right phone, know how to download them, actually download them, create an account, etc.

By measuring the range of potential, you can then set achievable targets and work out how much you can afford to invest in development, and in acquiring customers. It can also help you make technical decisions that suit your target market, such as prioritising operating systems and designing key features.

3. Review the literature

Ask yourself: Has someone tried this before? Did it work? If not, why not?

By understanding other research in the field, you can clarify the key issues for your project and navigate through obstacles that others have stumbled on.  It can also help you to build your credibility as an expert and innovator in the sector, which can be helpful when trying to attract partners, funding and media coverage.

Reviewing the literature helped Marcus Winter identify the key features of game design for the Museum of Design in Plastics, and enabled Roma Patel to quickly structure their user evaluation.

The University of Leicester has this great guide to Doing a Literature Review. There are also fantastic resources such as Kings College London’s CultureCase to help you make sense of complex academic papers.

It’s a great idea to document your literature review, but if you are stretched for time, the process can be as simple as sharing knowledge with clever colleagues around the coffee table. Whatever method you choose, try to be systematic, so you don’t miss anything, and ask yourself ‘so what?’ as you go, so you can distil the implications for your project.

Originally published by Nesta as ‘3 research methods to give R&D the best chance of success’


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About the Author

Tandi Palmer Williams
Managing Director

Patternmakers’ Founder and Managing Director Tandi Palmer Williams is an experienced consultant and arts and culture research specialist.  

Between 2013 and 2015, she was Research Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, based at Nesta in London.