Testing can kill your best ideas – here’s how to empower them instead

“If I asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Here, Henry Ford was referring to the many pitfalls of testing ideas. He knew that if he sat down with a focus group of potential buyers and asked them what would make their lives better, they would have wanted him to improve what they already used. Faster horses. More trains. Closer stores. If he had listened, he might have left his sketch for the Model T on the cutting room floor.

Ford’s insight rings true across all industries. Testing things like names, taglines, and creative – when done incorrectly – kills great ideas. So, how can we avoid this trap? How can we empower our best ideas without hindering them?

Simple. Don’t test them. Learn about them.

To build effective creative research that empowers our best ideas, we must break out of a “testing mindset” and build a learner’s mindset. Why? It’s because…

A testing mindset looks for direct answers – but a learner’s mindset looks for meaning

In fact, let’s remove the word “testing” from our research vocabulary entirely because tests only have two things: questions and answers. We shouldn’t be looking for “the right answers;” we should look for meaning.

When researching a name, design concept, or creative, a learner’s mindset helps us understand the context, beliefs, associations, feelings, gaps, pains, desires, and needs that will help us then decide what to do, change, or say based on the insights.

To build a learner’s mindset in research, start by asking, “what might I learn about?” instead of “what answers might I get?” Then, you can determine the most effective methodology to accomplish your learning agenda. If you go into research only identifying an answer you are seeking, the data you’ve collected may not be sufficient to explore the meaning that emerges as true for the respondents and market.

Why is a learner’s mindset more effective at building meaning from research? It’s because…

A testing mindset stops at the answers – but a learner’s mindset finds even better questions to ask

Research can never be insightful if it starts and stops at an “answer.” If we are thinking of the answers we might get, we could end up asking questions that limit our learning. For example, think about the difference in these questions:

  1. Which would you like: steak or fish? Do you want potatoes or salad on the side? Iced tea or red wine?
  2. What kinds of food remind you of home and get you in the mood for connection? Can you tell me about your perfect comfort meal? What are the sights, smells, flavors, sounds, and textures?

Both questions tell you something that’s useful. But the first one hems respondents into a limited number of choices; only the second one helps you create something breakthrough and fresh. When researching names or creative, we should not simply “test” if they want steak of fish. Pardon the stretched metaphor, but we should learn what cuisine they want in the first place by understanding the context, the beliefs, and the value behind the answers.

By looking beyond simple “answers,” a learner’s mindset can interpret what is done or said, and then also connect the dots to learn why it’s done or said.

A testing mindset can not only make our findings more difficult to interpret, but it can also make our findings fundamentally flawed. That’s because…

A testing mindset invites biases – but a learner’s mindset acknowledges and mitigates them

Simply put, “testing” doesn’t consider how people normally interact with things in the real world.

As Daniel Kahneman outlined in his 2013 book Thinking Fast and Slow people have two systems of thought to observe and interpret the world around us. System One is automatic and impulsive; it interprets quickly and with emotion. System Two is slower and more methodical; it interprets information logically and deliberately.

People generally use System One to interpret things like names and advertisements. They see them flashed on a screen, or in an aisle at the store. They make quick, snap judgements in context. However, when testing ideas, we are forcing them to use System Two. Simply by having them in a room or answering a survey we make them activate a more deliberate mode of thinking. This is why “testing” is responsible for killing great ideas: we force respondents to “overthink” the names or creative we show them. We can ask them which name they think is best for a product, but their answer will be hopelessly biased.

“Testing” your ideas will simply tell you what people liked while they were sitting in a room, eating free snacks, and being filmed by a stranger with a clipboard.

Instead, we must use a learner’s mindset to acknowledge how we can create these biases, and then dig deeper to the motivations and meaning behind their answers. We must always ask ourselves “why did they answer that way?”

In a future blog post we’ll outline how we avoid these pitfalls and design research that inspires great ideas, rather than kills them. Until then, remember: a “learner’s mindset” can be the difference between revolutionizing an industry, and sticking everyone with a faster horse.

Need help formulating successful research? Contact Northbound for a consultation.

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