How to Turn Research into Innovation Gold

Throughout the winter of 2006, the long, white walls of the room assigned to Steelcase's (SCS) health-care research team looked like a scrapbook.

The four-member group based in the Grand Rapids (Mich.) headquarters of the office furniture giant was studying the experience of cancer patients, and had spent months interviewing and photographing doctors and patients in oncology units at nine hospitals across the country. Hundreds of the thousands of pictures they'd taken lined the walls, along with almost as many Post-It notes. There were collages, created by cancer patients to express treatment as it is, and as it should be, and interview transcripts and traditional market research in stacks on the conference room table.

Standing before all of this material, the Steelcase health research team faced the challenge of every innovation team after the initial research stage: how to tease useful insights out of all of this disparate data.

Traditional market research is an established discipline. But most innovations depend on nontraditional research methods—ethnographic studies, customer-created collages, and so on—that can't easily be sliced and diced in Excel. That means synthesis can be one of the most challenging steps in the innovation process. ("I've met more than a few firms who spent a lot of time and money on a research project only to have the development team stare at the material, shrug, and go off and do what they wanted to do from the start," confirms Dev Patnaik, founder of the growth strategy firm Jump Associates.)

Gathering for the "Big Share"

Joyce Bromberg directs Steelcase's WorkSpace Futures Explorations, the group responsible for the research on which new products and even new markets are based. She says the synthesis process can seem like "alchemy," though her team uses well-tested methods, as is clear when she talks about the development of Sonata, a line of modular furniture based on her health-care team's cancer research and developed by Nurture (a Steelcase company focused on health care.) The award-winning system was designed specifically for oncology units and launched in June 2008.

With all of the research materials gathered in a room, the group convened for what they call a "big share"—a two-day event that included marketers, engineers, industrial designers, and other stakeholders. The field team began by telling stories and sharing observations. (Researchers record the latter in formal documents that include the observation, its origin, its significance, and other details.)

With their thinking primed by the stories, the group went through all of the research photos, organizing them into related themes—a patient's need for privacy, for instance—and taping those clusters on the wall. As they began to see common problems or workarounds, they added observations written on Post-It notes to the wall. "The goal is to take the knowledge gained from the research and make it explicit," says Bromberg.

By the end of the share, the group had generated close to 100 insights, some big, some small. For instance, a patient's family plays a critical support role during treatment, yet their comfort and needs are often overlooked in the design of cancer units. Over the course of the next two weeks, they "collapsed" these to 50 and then further. To help distill the insights, the team wrote each one down on an 11x17 piece of paper, adding relevant photographs, and hung those sheets on the wall for further reflection.

"As we discuss, we realize that this one is close to that one and you can combine them into a bigger insight," says Bromberg. For example, the researchers noticed patients mentioning or complaining about seemingly small things: access to power outlets or a place to store personal items. The Steelcase researchers added them up to understand that as cancer patients face what is both physically and emotionally draining treatment, such small details matter greatly, and that hospitals need to pay attention.

Key Takeaways

Ultimately, the team identified 12 core insights that could guide the design and development phases to come. One, for instance, was the importance of spaces that could transition to respond to the varying needs of chemo patients who sometimes seek the companionship of other patients and sometimes want a private space to speak with a spouse or doctor.

Nurture launched its Sonata line in 2008 at the industry trade show Neocon, where it won a Gold best-of award in the health-care furniture category.

What can executives learn from the way Steelcase analyzes its research?Let it steep. Whether the team members start reviewing research on their own first or immediately come together as a group, spend at least a couple of days going back through notes, sifting through photos, watching videos, etc. Sit with the material and the patterns will start to emerge.Look for patterns. Did a certain phrase come up in interview after interview? Do dozens of photos capture the same workaround? Such patterns reflect the user behaviors and/or latent needs that lead to successful innovation.Pay attention to contradictions or discrepancies. When the cancer patients in the Sonata study made collages representing their current and ideal hospital experiences, the discrepancies suggested great opportunities for innovation. Similarly, when a research subject says one thing and does another, it may be the sign of an unrecognized need.Be inclusive. Though the heavy lifting of the synthesis process is typically done by the core research team, it's important to include other stakeholders in some way, both because they bring valuable perspectives to the conversation and because it gives them some ownership of the research, making the transition to product development and later marketing go more smoothly.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE