From open sourcing to 'always in beta', Eric Shapiro, senior consultant in our creative delivery team, explores what insight can learn from the agile ways of digital development...

There’s no hiding from the fact that the most important products of the last 20 years all have zeros and ones in common. As the entire world has moved digital, the way we build, test, refine and consume has had to adapt. More than ever, the pressure is on the process: translating ideas into action – and at speed. The results, from Facebook and Google to Angry Birds and Minecraft – can be spectacular successes at relatively minimal upfront cost, and rarely a day goes by where a piece of development work isn’t in the news.

It’s therefore no surprise that insight, along with most other industries, view technology startup culture with equal degrees of admiration and envy. And while lip service is often paid to the link between insights and tech, we’re too often slow, or reluctant, to apply digital thinking to research processes. With this in mind, here’s how understanding digital can help make our insight a bit more Minecraft and a lot less Microsoft Vista.

1. Start with a sentence

Great products have an extremely clear vision and a solid base which can adapt to change and grow. Twitter is a micro messaging platform. Facebook connects you with friends. From a simple and solid base, you can build – which is why summing up your start up in a sentence is a big deal. While clarity at the outset helps with the later process of building, testing, and refining, it also helps when your product goes ‘viral’. The best and most successful products can deal with this – ones that fail often can’t (anybody remember Ello?). The insight learning: distill briefs and their responses to their core to get everyone on board at the beginning, and then revisit the process at the end to ensure your findings have a consistent and solid message.

2. Plan more, do less 

In the context of quick turn-around briefs and instant insights, it’s often the scoping phases that get pinched in favour of more time in field and the hope of more analysis and output building later on. However, if we switch this on its head, and spend more time identifying what we already have, and putting into place a watertight and signed off plan of action there’s far less likelihood of running into problems at the analysis stage, which as a consequence can be faster and more focused. This is where digital thinking wins out. This may be borne out of technological necessity in most instances (there’s no point building a perfect square peg if in can only fit in a round hole), but it shows how trading off more thinking for less doing leads to better outcomes.

3. Consider agile

For the last few years, ‘agile’ has been the buzzword of the digital industries. In a nutshell, it’s about producing a bare minimum product offering, then iteratively adding layers by building, testing, and refining the basic concept. It’s a brilliant, user-centric way of creating that keeps things simple and uncomplicated. As the name suggests, it’s also quick; projects are measured in days rather than weeks. What’s more, it links perfectly with research and focuses the role of insight. A team of researchers, creatives and product owners work together closely to repeatedly build and improve a concept until you end up with a final ‘phase’ that’s taken to market. At Crowd DNA we’ve successfully use this approach to build a set of creative guidelines and look forward to introducing it to other areas. Agile methods are also a key element in design thinking, a similarly innovative approach that involves building products using human behaviours as a starting point, rather than a proving ground in the later stages.

An agile product cycle involving insight
An agile product cycle involving insight

4. Use collaborative tech

Digital project management requires a high degree of attention and quality control to ensure things are built properly and bugs can be quickly squashed. This has led to a raft of innovation in project management tools and software to help make the process seamless. At the heart of tools like Basecamp, Gliffy, Google Docs, and many others, is a collaboration ethos where responsibilities are clearly defined, shared and work together towards a single aim. Like any product, a piece of insight needs to be bug proof in order to be effective and do its job, and embracing collaboration can help us ensure our products are of exceptional standard.

5. Pivot your ideas

Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and blogger, is responsible for defining a lot of the characteristics of what he terms ‘the lean startup’, a model which digital and non digital companies are increasingly associating themselves with. One of the central definitions of the lean startup is the ability to change a product’s primary use, rather than scrap or rebrand it if it fails to make an impact in the market. While this method – known as pivoting – often refers to entire companies or large products, the principles are applicable to research. The lesson here: consider the insights beyond the primary aim. If they don’t prove the hypothesis or the argument, what else do they prove? Is there more than one story angle in the data? Which story is going to be the most compelling to the intended audience? If you need inspiration, look no further than great pivoting examples like Pinterest (originally a shopping app) and Groupon (originally a crowdfunding platform) to show how changing direction can lead to success.

6. Be ‘always in beta’

Finally, digital industries are embracing the notion of the ‘never finished product’ – that a service can be continually improved and adapted towards perfection, rather than ever claiming to have reached it upon launch. We’ve long championed the idea that research needs to be socialised and adapted if it’s to have an impact; that no single finding or deliverable can ever be said to nail the problem forever; therefore it’s great to see this idea becoming increasingly put into practice. Innovations such as YouTube’s fantastic 360 service show how even the most established and successful products can always be re-evaluated and added to.