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How You Can Learn from Your Customers Using Agile Principles

Today’s leading organizations are increasingly employing agile tactics in marketing, innovation and customer experience. By adopting an agile approach and leveraging agile qualitative research, your organization is able to continuously iterate, ensuring your go-to-market strategy fits with consumers lifestyle, personality and needs.

Key Points:

  • Understand the key benefits companies see from implementing agile principles to marketing and innovation
  • Dive deeper on how development cycles are impacted by implementing agile, and what that means for your market research programs.
  • Get specific tips and tricks to applying agile research effectively in your organization

Agile Principles

Companies in all industries and verticals are using agile principles to move faster, make better decisions and deliver more value to their customers. Some examples of agile businesses include Grubhub, Lending Tree, Spotify and Salesforce.

Let’s take a step back: What exactly does it mean to operate as an agile business?

The agile philosophy began as a software development movement in the early 2000s. At a very basic level, agile involves working collaboratively with both colleagues and customers and leveraging recent feedback to influence future software releases—instead of sticking to a plan written months ago. This enables companies to rapidly test and iterate, using feedback from their users and customers to drive improvements and changes in the product roadmap.

Beyond that, agile provides a number of benefits to organizations:

  • Accelerated innovation. Teams avoid working on lower-priority features and instead focus their efforts on bringing better products to market faster. 
  • Improved quality of products. Since agile focuses on cross-functional teams, there’s more integrated development instead of a siloed approach—which results in better products.
  • Increased productivity. Teams are more engaged and empowered. They waste less time and get more things done.
  • Reduced costs. Agile is all about rapid iteration and incremental change. This prevents companies from making enormous mistakes they don’t realize until it’s too late (e.g., having to rework something later in development or after launch, which can be prohibitively expensive).
  • Improved employee morale. As teams get better results, employees become happier. They’re less likely to be on the lookout for another job.

In recent years, the agile philosophy has evolved; it’s increasingly seen as being applicable to just about every business and job function. That’s because, at its core, agile is about breaking down projects into smaller testable solutions that are then assessed and optimized by empowered cross-functional teams.

Though agile started in software development, it’s since moved to product development—and even marketing and HR. Where will it go next?

Applying Agile to Innovation

Because of the benefits it provides, today’s leading organizations are increasingly adopting an agile approach to innovation.

Very generally, this involves three distinct steps, which are repeated in a cyclical, never-ending loop:

  1. Prototype
  2. Research
  3. Develop

To do this effectively, companies need deeper, in-context learning that helps teams understand why customers and users feel certain ways about certain product features or marketing campaigns. This enables them to iterate with confidence.

Agile can be applied both early and late in development cycles. In fact, companies can use agile principles as they move from strategy to concept to development to in-market, iterating several times in each stage.

Unfortunately, iterating with confidence requires having trustworthy data that’s current and reliable. Many organizations, however, have a big problem with agile research—which prevents them from moving as quickly as they might hope.

Large companies, for example, tend to use traditional market research to inform their decisions. That research isn’t very conducive to agile. Big data isn’t specific to the exact solution you’re building. Surveys that assess yes-or-no decisions don’t really inform iteration adequately. In-person research is slow and expensive and you don’t really get the best data there, either. Ongoing communities aren’t targeted enough. The list goes on.

Small companies, on the other hand, have fewer resources and tend to view research skeptically. They believe research will slow them down, cost too much or be too outdated to be useful. Many of them ultimately decide that it’s simply not worth their while to do research at all.

Instead of trusting their guts or making decisions based on whimsy, organizations need a new way forward: applying the agile philosophy to research. When done correctly, this enables them to get the right insights from the right people at the right time—which ultimately translates into better products and stronger marketing campaigns.

Three Principles to Guide Agile Research

How exactly can organizations leverage agile research effectively?

Here are three principles that should drive your agile efforts:

  1. Build to learn. Design and research work together to break big problems down into a series of small solutions. When you’re building to learn, be sure it allows for meaningful iterations—whether that is iterating your strategy, product, positioning or features.
  1. Optimize solutions. It’s more valuable to get deep insights from 10–20 people than survey 100 people for more general data. Capture targeted participants and get in-context learning. Repeat the process until you believe you’ve built the right solutions.
  1. Collaboration is key. People are more important than the process because they communicate, respond and share ideas whereas a process involves simply sticking to a plan. People and their opinions evolve over time. By involving the entire team during the learning journey, you can evolve your solutions quicker.

Now that you have a good idea of the principles that should influence agile research, let’s take a look at how you can apply agile at your organization.

Applying Agile at Your Organization

Enacting an agile approach to development at your organization can be tricky. Change is often difficult, after all. But with the right approach, it’s definitely possible.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five tactics you can employ to transform your organization into an agile one:

  1. Start with a sprint. Break a single initiative down into 2–4 week sprint. For example, a marketing sprint might include getting three case studies published during the predefined timeframe. A product sprint might include building a new feature.
  1. Schedule daily standup meetings. Meet each morning to let your team know what you’re working on that day and what you worked on yesterday. These meetings can either be in-person or virtual, using a platform like Trello, Mattermost or Asana.
  1. Get target customers involved. Figure out what your learning objectives are. Typically, you’ll want to capture context and feedback. Then you’ll need to identify who you want to talk to—the exact people who have the needs you’re trying to meet. Create stimuli that help them test what you’re thinking of building or what you’ve built already. This could be a 2D sketch, a 3D virtual model or a physical prototype.
  1. Chart interim results. Extend your research with the same participants when you can. Break research down into the smallest pieces possible so you can report on everything sooner. Shoot for daily or weekly reports instead of issuing one large report at the end.
  1. Celebrate accomplishments. Share what you’ve learned with everyone at your organization. Be sure to incorporate team member “shout outs” to give credit where it’s due and motivate employees to continue operating in an agile manner.

By now, you’ve got a good idea on why agile is important and what specific steps you can take to establish agile at your organization. It’s time to turn our attention to how you can optimize agile for each stage of the product development cycle.

Customizing Your Agile Approach to Each Development Stage

For the best results, you’ll need to tweak your agile approach at each stage of the development cycle. Here’s how:

  • Stage 1: Strategy. Focus on customer understanding. Figure out what the job is you need to do. Remember that in-context learning is critical. The more you understand the current solution you are displacing, the more targeted your questions can be. Keep in mind that you want your learning to be iterative, so get feedback on new solutions as you go. Break research into small chunks so it’s flexible and give yourself time to ask participants follow-up questions. Dig into why they feel the way they do.
  • Stage 2: Concept. When you move to the concept phase of development, focus on experimentation and iterative feedback. Build solutions based on learning. In other words, help customers build their ideal solution—which, in turn, is your ideal solution. Remember that agile research enables you to get a more nuanced understanding of people’s reactions to things like wireframes, concepts and websites. You need to get more than a simple yes or no answer.
  • Stage 3: Development. Collect feedback in tight feedback loops and make sure you are putting it to use right away—and then testing and iterating again. Make sure you are getting out of the lab and back into the field as soon as you reasonably can. For example, Sub-Zero used to do field testing after 90 days to see how their customers responded to their products. Today, they break down each field trial with individual Sprints so engineers receive feedback every week. This has enabled the refrigeration company to identify and solve problems much earlier—generating significant ROI along the way.

Use Agile to Get to the Next Level

Agile is a relatively new way of thinking. It’s a philosophy that is driving today’s leading organizations—and leading them to impressive results. Agile can help strengthen and optimize each stage of the product development cycle, and the benefits speak for themselves.

By optimizing as you go—and using smaller, more targeted research studies to inform your decisions—you can build better products and services that are well-received by your target audience. That’s the ticket to a healthier, more financially secure organization—and much happier customers.

Employing agile research processes can be easier than you think. To get started and learn more, check out our complimentary Agile Research Guide: How Consumer Product Teams Can Innovate Faster.


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Topics: Innovation, Marketing, Agile

Monika Rogers

Monika Rogers

Monika Rogers is the CEO and Co-founder of Digsite. She has more than 20 years of marketing, innovation and market research experience, including positions at General Mills, Pillsbury and the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.