Case study 44 student research projects

A marketing lecturer set his students the task of thinking up an idea for a new product, then researching the market for it. The students were allowed to use any research methods that seemed appropriate, but all were expected to carry out secondary research before designing their primary research programmes. Most of the groups of students found that thinking up the product idea was fun, but the research was more like hard work - that said, they did appreciate the opportunity to put some of their own ideas to work.

Altogether, there were 42 ideas for new products; some of these were not technically feasible, or would be unlikely to be profitable, but some of the ideas seemed viable. In any case, the assignment was about research, not about the technical design of products, so the feasibility or otherwise of the products was irrelevant.

The students carried out the necessary secondary research, then designed their own primary research programmes. Most used questionnaire-based surveys, a few used focus groups, and a small number used depth interviews, observation, experimentation or other techniques.

The students were left to their own devices somewhat; the idea was to allow them to learn from their mistakes and find out for themselves what the pitfalls of market research are. In most cases, students managed to produce fairly good results, but quite obviously some of them had serious difficulties.

The questionnaire surveys turned out to be the ones that caused the most difficulty; apart from the problems of designing the questionnaire, many of the students had made basic sampling errors. Here are some examples, taken from the students' written-up assignments:

• 'We conducted a random sample of shoppers by stopping people in the High Street on Saturday morning.' (new type of shopping basket)

• 'In order to find out the views of young people, we asked for volunteers and interviewed 23 students from the university.' (radio station)

• 'We surveyed 10 women and 10 men. The women were 20% more likely to like the product than were the men, and people over 60 were 10% more likely to like the product. Overall, 40% of the respondents liked the product.' (gardening tool)

• 'Telephone interviews with 100 respondents revealed that 32% of those interviewed would buy the roof sealer. Unfortunately, a further eight people who were interviewed later turned out to be grown-up children of the household rather than the home owner.' (emergency roof-sealing tarpaulin)

• 'The main problem we had with the interviews was that most people were too busy to stop and talk to us. Eventually, we managed to complete 70 useable questionnaires, however.' (banking services)

• 'Having obtained the permission of the crèche to conduct our research, we gave the questionnaire to the mothers when they arrived to collect their children. The following day we collected the questionnaires; unfortunately only about half were returned. However, these were enough to enable us to draw some conclusions.'

The focus groups were rather better, but even here some problems became apparent:

• 'Our group consisted of six boys and two girls, aged between 18 and 20. We showed them the model of the product and asked them to comment on it; at first they seemed to find it difficult to say much, but after some prompting they began to discuss it more freely.' (car vacuum cleaner)

• 'When we showed them the product most of them seemed puzzled. We had six housewives in the group, all of them from a coffee-morning group of friends.' (safety device for lawnmowers)

• 'Our group often strayed from the subject. We had a representative sample consisting of three teenagers (one male, two female), two middle-aged people, and three old-age pensioners.' (carpet cleaning device)

Although the students were able (in most cases) to work out what had gone wrong, they did not always know what to do to put matters right. This meant that the lecturer needed to spend considerable time with them to correct misconceptions and to help them understand the issues raised by the research; despite that, all those concerned, both lecturer and students, felt that the exercise had been a useful introduction to market research.

(Case contributed by Jim Blythe)

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