The Do's and Don'ts of Concept Testing

Maria Twigge

Pitch It: The Business Case for Customer Salience

As insight experts, we understand the power of insights, their inherent value in key decision-making...


Emily James

    Designing and bringing a new product to market is not for the faint hearted. It requires a degree of bravery at times, the confidence to gamble, to risk pushing an idea forwards through many potential barriers. Planning and development teams have to decide who to listen and when, and which views to prioritise over others.

    At FlexMR we deliver lots of bespoke concept tests, each test tailored to the brand and concept in question. The key benefits of testing at this early developmental stage:

    • Avoidance of heavy investment in poor concepts
    • Retention of great concepts too easily dismissed internally

    Coca Cola Zero is a good example of a product that might not have made it had the planning team not done their research and known that the concept had huge market potential. The concept tested well, but the initial market launch was slow whilst the marketers found their feet in promoting a product with traditionally negative connotations. Without the confidence instilled by the concept test the product could have been ‘canned’ and the world would be bereft of zero-fat coke!

    At a recent AQR Spark event I got the opportunity to hear about the experiences of working as a product planner at Diageo – 3 years of planning and testing had taught the team that product development is a lot easier the earlier the customer and potential market audience are involved in the process. With a deep understanding of consumer needs and expectations at the concept stage, the work of their planners is streamlined.

    So here is a useful guide of do’s and don’ts for customer centric product development teams everywhere trying make smarter investment decisions.

    Concept Testing Do’s

    1. Do test new concepts with your loyal customer base
    Your loyal customers are an extension of your brand. They can spot the product or feature ‘no brainers’ with ease, where you may be constrained by your expert knowledge. View your concepts through the eyes of your most likely buyers and get those quick wins to market.

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    Loyal brand customers can spot NPD quick wins with ease

    2. Do test very novel concepts with more knowledgeable experts
    As well as your potential customer base, it is advisable to test particularly novel innovations with category experts. In Li. Peng and Cui’s Picking Winners (Study Two) they found that professional critics were better at picking winning movies in unusual genres where regular cinema goers discriminated best in the mainstream arena.

    3. Do create a standardised set of concept testing dimensions
    Before you begin any concept test it’s important to have a list of attributes clearly defined that signify product success for the brand. You testing objective is to identify which concepts fulfil these attributes and to what degree. Many attribute dimensions are universal in concept testing, the degree of uniqueness, usefulness and purchase intent for example. Developing a list of key attribute dimensions helps you to benchmark concepts; to compare the results of new concept tests with those of old for deeper insight penetration.

    4. Do formulate an effective concept testing ‘item’ list
    With reference to Item Response Theory (IRT). When we apply IRT to concept testing, ‘items’ refer to test questions and answer scope.

    When designing your concept test consider the language you use and work with a research expert to phrase your question and answer options. Be sure that your words do represent the likely feelings of your potential customers and that response parameters will differentiate poor concepts from winning ones, particularly with respect to latent attitudes. Using the word ‘like’ as an example - if it’s a financial product concept being tested your respondents may not ‘like’ any of your ideas, if it is a technological development they may ‘like’ all of them. That therefore is not enough. When testing concludes you must be able to discriminate between each concept based on your study items.

    5. Do evaluate your concept testing design post study
    If all of your concepts score very similarly on some or many of your test questions / tasks you have either studied the wrong audience or used the wrong set of attribute dimensions or study items, or a combination. Always evaluate the effectiveness of your testing design post study and tweak it until you have an effective set of discriminative dimensions.

    Concept Testing Don’ts

    1. Don’t dismiss ideas too early!
    Innovation and unique propositions do not come easy. When you run an ideation session, keep the focus on just that – idea generation. Resist the urge to evaluate and dismiss ideas. Keep every idea in the melting pot for a quick bit of customer screening. Don’t be put off by concepts which present internal challenges, you still need to know if these test well with the customer. Then you can focus your energies on the relevant troubleshooting / problem solving with the voice of the customer in your corner.

    2. Don’t reject a concept because it’s difficult for a customer to grasp
    A major innovation could be really tricky for your potential customer base to understand because it’s complex, unexpected or unprecedented. This doesn’t mean they won’t love it when experienced first-hand. If you are having trouble conveying a concept to your audience take it to a panel of experts in the relevant field for review. For major innovations an audience of this nature will help you assess potential product success with greater accuracy, give you the best steer.

    3. Don’t expect to get every dimension right in the first concept test
    That said, considering your brand through the eyes of your customer will help you to guard against unnecessary attribute dimensions from the start. ‘Fun’ is a common go to dimension, every brand aspires to bring some fun into their customers’ lives, but some brands play a very functional roll and whether a concept is fun or not is not important to their customers at all! They are far more interested in its ability to solve a problem and ease of use.

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    Major and minor innovations need different concept tests to predict success

    4. Don’t use the same concept testing approach for both major and minor innovations
    The difference between a major and minor innovation for the purposes of this point - the degree of ‘newness’ in terms of the potential audience. In Picking Winners: Study One, Li, Peng and Cui identified certain dimensions as better predictors of product success for major innovations, and certain others for minor innovations. They found for example, that liking and believability were much better discriminators of major innovations, where problem solving ability was much more likely to extract the winners of minor innovations.

    5. And finally… don’t assume that concept testing needs to use up a lot of time
    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that concept testing takes up so much internal resource that you aren’t equipped to do it. There are many quick off-the-shelf solutions for basic tests available today and there are also many responsive agencies out there that can work with you to formulate the right test with the right level of support. Making a product development decision, which does command big chunks of time and resource, is much easier to do with a confident set of results behind you.

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