Our Vertical Innovation™ process relies heavily on market and consumer research — not just at the outset, but throughout the project. Members of our in-house Insights team — Amanda Beacher, Stephanie Malafarina and Stacey Sullivan — have more than 60 years’ experience between them, in all facets of user and market research. We asked them to talk about Open-Ended Innovation, our program for clients who want to reach outside their comfort zones.

As Stephanie puts it, “We help them get outside their own headspace and see beyond their thinking about who they are and where they have a right to play.”

What is An “Open-Ended” Innovation?

Stacey: An Open-Ended Innovation program is for the client that comes to us and says, “We don’t know what to make but we want to create something using our current technology.”

Amanda: That process starts with us ramping up very quickly on the core competencies and assets of our client partner and how we can potentially leverage them. That’s done through an in-depth kickoff meeting with all the key stakeholders from the client’s side, and all the leads from the NS side. Within Insights, we emphasize the importance of conducting subject-matter expert interviews, sometimes up to 20, within the client/partner’s organization.

Insights ResearchThen we do high-level market assessments. We have subscriptions to standardized market reports. So for instance if we were doing an Open-Ended program for a client that works in aluminum, what are the upstream markets that feed into aluminum and where is the downstream? We start there to see where they could potentially go, and we look at the health of those markets. Some people get kind of cross-eyed when they look at it because we put together a full vetting matrix: Here are 40 different markets you could potentially go into, and then we rank those 40 markets by the characteristics or metrics that make sense. What’s the future growth potential? Is it a mature market or an emerging market? What are the barriers to entry? And from that grid we can rank the potential markets.

Stacey: In one recent case, we identified at-home medical products as a growing market. At that point, we talked to people giving and receiving in-home care to find out their issues, and later, we showed them our concepts. We did usability research, where we had people sitting in bed, playing with the different pieces of the system, seeing how it moved and how they would utilize it.

All of this is done collaboratively with engineering and designing, our client relationship managers and our clients/partners. It’s all iterative — it’s a cross-discipline, cross-company team effort.

How long does this take?

Amanda: “Typical” doesn’t exist here, but that’s a benefit of how we work. On average, we find the disruptive opportunity in less than three months. We don’t offer an off-the-shelf innovation program. I’ve done three Open-Ended programs here and they’ve all been very different, because they had different starting points. A client/partner might be wide open, they just want to find something new, and others might give us more direction.

Stephanie: Oftentimes, an Open-Ended program results in multiple products or a suite of products, and a road map for our client. On my last one, there were five to seven ideas that the organization was really excited about. They delegated some to task forces within their organization to explore further, while we moved forward with Option A.

That’s typically one of our challenges in the beginning, really understanding the client’s appetite for innovation. We start to discover as we work with them more closely just how far we can push them, where their comfort zone is and what level of risk they want to take.

Amanda: It’s what we call the “mild to wild” spectrum. Some options are mild, meaning they’re closely aligned to the core business, an adjacent innovation as opposed to disruptive, or wild, for which they may have to make capital investments or hire new talent. It’s all about their corporate readiness to engage in the opportunity space.

Stephanie: We’re working now with a company whose expertise is chemicals, and they came to us for help with a product to activate the chemical. And because they’re not in the consumer product space, we’ve done a lot of coaching. But it’s been a learning experience for us, too.

Stacey: We also have to assess how comfortable they are with Insights and Research, specifically. Some of our clients want a 100-page detailed report with very sophisticated analyses because that’s what they’re used to getting. Other clients, all they want is a one-pager that says “We recommend going with Product X.” So we have to determine their preferences right at the beginning. I don’t want to give them research they’ve already done. If I don’t move the needle on their body of knowledge, then we haven’t done our job.

Amanda: We don’t have an ego about it. I want to see everything they’ve done prior to coming to us that’s relevant, so if that means working with another researcher they have a relationship with, that’s great. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so we like to build off of existing knowledge. We often have a counterpart on the client side, someone in an Insights or Research role, and I like to work with them closely. We’re not trying to push that person aside. I’ve had the same experience, working in the client side, where I felt kept at arm’s length by the big consulting firm. I make it a point not to make my client feel that way. That’s why Nottingham Spirk hires people who are seasoned, because we’ve been there.

How do you manage the process of narrowing down the choices?

Stacey: I feel like we’re the navigator. If we were on a ship together, we’re the ones who say, “Go northwest.” And if we go a little more north or a little more west, it’s OK. There are pockets of opportunities, and what matters is that we choose a pocket and move forward. As Amanda has said, it’s informed intuition.

Amanda: Right, it’s intuition but based on more than just your gut. I’ve actually had that as a column in the decision matrix before: Does this opportunity space resonate with everything you know about your organization’s capabilities and readiness? The matrices help. We’re almost forcing the information into a quantifiable form. We take all the discussions and considerations and qualitative input and rate it. This allows us to deselect and focus in on the best options by documenting our rationale for making the decision. That’s what builds the story that helps the organization feel comfortable about moving in a new direction. Within all those columns there’s a narrative, and you can read across the row and understand everything about each opportunity. And it’s not just dictated by Nottingham Spirk. It’s very collaborative, we all arrive there together.

Stephanie: The matrix helps us focus. They see that it’s all grounded in robust, comprehensive thought, and they’re part of that process.

How do you settle on methodologies for your process?

Amanda: We’re methodology agnostic. Lots of research companies like to be sexy: “We do eye-tracking in store aisles. We can read your mind from across the table because we put a sensor on your retina!” I read about this stuff and I think, That’s cool, I like technology, but we’re not driven by that. We just want to solve problems. If you’re exploring and you want to to get the language of the consumer, that’s a qualitative approach. If we want to validate an assumption, we might do a quantitative survey.

Stacey: If we’re trying to figure out the target market, the size of the market, pricing analyses, all of that is quantitative research. You want big, statistically significant numbers. The qual is much more the why, the how, the what, and usability.

Amanda: And we do in-home ethnographic research. Immersion, as we call it. “OK, I need to understand how farmers use farm equipment” — that’s a project I had two years ago. I’m more of a city and suburban girl, so I didn’t even know these products existed. Then I find myself smack in the middle of cattle country in Texas, riding along with a cattle rancher, with my designer in tow and a client/partner, and we’re out there looking for rattlesnakes to shoot. It was crazy. But we want to build a true understanding of the customer’s world. I got to see how they use this vehicle and I came back with a ton of ideas about how we could make it better. The most valuable observations you can make are the work-arounds that users come up with. Some people were souping up their vehicles in really cool ways, some modifications were really small. But it’s all gold to an insights person.

Stacey: I’ve done a lot of in-homes for medical products, and talk about stories. These people open their hearts and their homes and they always stick with us. I think about them constantly, even after the project is completed.

Amanda: It’s sort of like politicians. Unless you’re out there pressing the flesh, kissing the babies, visiting everyday people, you’re operating at a distance with your assumptions. We’re the grounding force for the designers and engineers. We bring the human element to everything.

Stacey: It’s not a project that we’re handing off to somebody. It’s a process. When we do in-homes, the designers and engineers usually come along. I’m the mouth, I ask the questions. The designer is the eyes, they’re sketching what they see and beginning to develop ideas. And the engineers are taking notes, they’re the ears. And I have to give a shout-out to the prototype guys, they are unbelievable. They make these ideas come to life, and it’s so much fun going into a focus group with a 3D prototype.

Stephanie: That makes our job so much easier. We don’t have to say, “Please imagine that this is here, and this is there.” People just can’t make those leaps in their minds.

How do you find the right people for focus groups?

Insights Focus GroupAmanda: Sometimes we collaborate with firms that do that. If we’re really looking for a needle in a haystack we’ll use our associates here, the “get out your Rolodex” kind of thing. I’ve done that quite a bit for the niche medical areas I was exploring. We leverage our contacts. John Nottingham and John Spirk are on the board at the Cleveland Clinic, and that helps. Case Western Reserve University, we have a great relationship with them. We can tap into them to learn about emerging technologies.

Stephanie: We also go the online bulletin board route.

Amanda: And magazines targeted to a certain lifestyle or interest. You can get access to people that way. You have to get creative.

Stacey: I’ve done a lot of blog searching. You can find a lot comments about existing products on blogs.

Amanda: Social media, Amazon reviews of similar products. And life hacks — again, it’s the work-around. It creates a hypothesis that you can test.

Stacey: I’ve done online research to understand the lingo. What do they call themselves? What words are they using to describe the different features? Then we can use those words in our surveys. You need to use the right words or you might miss an important segment of the market.

Amanda: What makes us successful in our jobs, the common thread, is an innate curiosity about the world. We find almost everything fascinating. And that’s something you can’t teach. There’s no class in curiosity, you either are or your aren’t. When we’re interviewing Insights people, I’m listening for that. I want to hear that desire to constantly be a student of the world.

Related: “Lessons Well Learned: Disruptive Product Innovation and Business Innovation Go Hand in Hand.”


Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.


About us: Nottingham Spirk is a business innovation and product design firm with an unrivaled record of delivering disruptive consumer goods, medical devices, and packaging design solutions to market. We collaborate with Fortune 1,000 companies, funded start-ups and non-profit organizations to discover, design and execute product programs and strategic business platforms that will wow customers, grow markets and generate new revenue streams. Learn more about what makes us different here.

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