Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”, and why not? How could people back then have known what the automobile would become? Ford clearly understood that a radical idea can’t always be tested ahead of time — but does that mean using online surveys to test new product ideas is fundamentally flawed?
In truth, there are certain types of products that one simply can’t do direct market research on. We can’t use an online survey to ask people their likelihood to purchase a radically new product because they’d lack context. Without a picture, without understanding what to compare it to, without a significant investment in learning about this radical concept, a respondent simply can’t form a meaningful opinion. It’s way too hypothetical. You’d get data, but it wouldn’t likely reflect future behavior accurately.
So if direct testing of radical ideas is out, are there other options? Yes.
Option A: Using an Online survey to Identify Behaviors
One fruitful avenue to explore in an online survey, even in the case of radically new products, is a target population’s related behaviors. For example if your radical product idea is in the music space, you may want to use an online survey to understand their behaviors related to music. What types of music devices do they own now? What percentage of the target market attends live concerts? What percent of their music library is stored as MP3 files versus more traditional media? Contextual information can often be important for inspiring messaging and positioning decisions.
Option B: Using an Online survey to Identify Needs
If you’ve come up with a radical new product, chances are that you did so to address an unmet need in your target market. Why not use an online survey to test the existence of that need? Even if you can’t present the product itself, you may well be able to measure the underlying needs or sources of pain that your amazing new product is designed to address, and that’s valuable information.
Continuing with the music category example, you may want to investigate needs in the following ways:
1. If you could improve one thing about your current music collection, what would it be? This could be an open-ended question.
2. Please reorder the following items based on how frustrating they are to you? Sort from 1 to 5 where 1 = most frustrating and 5 = least frustrating. (This would be done using the “Reorder” question in AYTM). In this example, the items might be:
• Cost of acquiring new songs
• Ability to share songs on multiple devices
• Ease of creating playlists
• Availability of songs from specific artists
• Ease of backing up music library
Respect the Limits
Yes, online surveys have limitations. They are best used to ask people about their attitudes and behaviors, and perform poorly in the world of the hypothetical. Approaching the problem obliquely rather than head-on, can still be very useful. While they may say they just want a faster horse, you may find some horse ownership problems that can be leveraged.