A qualitative category exploration is generally the first step in a new product development effort and it can take a variety of forms.  The key options are described in the sections below.


Let your customer take the lead.  One doesn’t start an individual interview by saying, in effect: “I want you to solve my product development and marketing problems for me, so just tell me what you want…” The response will be a blank stare, not usable information. Rather, the interview should start with a non-directive probe such as: “Talk to me about how you use (shop for, feel about, etc.) product category X. That’s interesting: tell me more…”  Once comments pertinent to the new product development effort begin to surface, the interviewer can then drill-down with more specific, product- or feature-focused follow-up probes. The objective is to learn how potential customers view the category and how they choose to engage with it; what they find enjoyable and what they find frustrating; how they compare the available options; what caught their interest in the first place.  None of these responses will immediately solve your product development or marketing problems, but all of them are good food for thought.


Cross-talk pays dividends.  The focus group format follows the same outline as the individual interview but allows for interactions between participants.  This cross-talk between category users can often lead to serendipitous learning when participants challenge each another’s comments and preferences; when surprising, off-hand comments reveal key emotional drivers; or when participants spontaneously mention things like “If only…”, “What if…” or “I wish I had…” – and an animated conversation breaks out.


Watch and learn.  The anthropological approach has similar objectives to the qualitative individual interviews: to allow the customer or end-user to demonstrate – through ordinary language and natural behaviors – how they participate in the category, how they use the available products or services, what they find appealing, what they find awkward or annoying, work-arounds they may have developed, alternatives they are considering, etc.  Here again, instant solutions are unlikely but the immersive learning provides strong potential for breakthrough insights.


Learn from those who know. We recommend doing qualitative explorations with “informed category participants”.  These are potential customers or end-users who have already wandered into the category – for whatever reason, by whatever means – and have enough experience with the existing products or services (the de facto framework for the current users’ experience) to offer meaningful comments.  In Ries’ world these might be labeled “early adopters”, but we would leave the door open to leading edge or “early majority” prospects (Moore, 2014, p. 54) as well.  “Informed category participants” have experience with the new category (or the one targeted for disruption), can provide meaningful observations about category dynamics and, most importantly, represent the critical opportunity for initial growth.


Let the pieces fall into place.  Regardless of the approach chosen, the learning and insights come through inductive reasoning and inference: by reflecting on participants’ comments, by reviewing their behaviors, by noting the choices they have made (and may not have made) and finally through those glorious “Aha…!” moments. The qualitative category exploration sheds light on:

  • Openings for significant product improvements,
  • The potential for a breakthrough product positioning (via form, function, delivery, etc.),
  • The possibility for category disruption through innovation,
  • And/or the presence of critical barriers to entry.

This is not a process of deductive reasoning or analytic rigor – though that may be the post-hoc explanation for the conclusions that are developed.  This is an attempt to see the whole by allowing the pieces to fall into place.

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