In their blog post for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Lara Lee and Daniel Sobol wrote, “data mining does not equate to developing “customer intelligence” … Data can reveal new patterns that point a firm in the right direction, but it can’t indicate what to do once there. It reveals what people do, but not why they do it. And understanding the why is critical to innovation.”

The blog authors advocate use of such qualitative research methodologies as in-depth interviews and in-home ethnography to better understand the psychology, unmet needs, and underlying values of consumers. I totally agree. These kinds of research methodologies are incredibly powerful tools for getting inside consumers’ heads.

The problem is that ethnographic research can be expensive. Which puts it out of reach of many housewares companies who typically have little to spend on consumer market research.

Nonetheless, understanding the why is critical. Which is open-ended “why” questions are part of the standard battery of questions I use for online product concept tests. A 5-point scale likeability or purchase likelihood question can tell us if respondents like the product concept and how likely they would be to buy the product. The subsequent “why” question tells us what motivated the respondents to answer as they did.

For example, I conducted a product concept test on a high-end toaster oven last year. I tested it against the two best-selling comparable competitive units. The research showed that the toaster oven was comparable to the two best-selling competitive products on desirability, believability, and uniqueness. However, the product fell far short on purchase likelihood.

Analysis of the open-ended questions provided insight into why the purchase likelihood rating for toaster oven was so low, relative to the two competitive products.

Price was the primary reason the respondents were not be interested in purchasing the toaster oven. When asked why they said they would not purchase the product, more than 70% of the respondents cited price. Most of the respondents already have a conventional oven and a microwave so they are not necessarily willing to spend a lot of money on an appliance that is not a necessity.

What’s more, the key point of differentiation, the different configurations of the five quartz heating elements and convection fan, was not important to most respondents.

Clearly, the unique features found in the toaster oven were not perceived by respondents as delivering enough benefit to justify paying such a high price.

The “why” questions tell us what motivated the respondents to answer as they did. More importantly, the “why” questions provide direction on what to do, especially in cases where the purchase likelihood score is low. The insight from the open-ended “why” questions tells us whether the product concept is a clear winner as is, has potential but needs refinement, or is a loser that should be discarded.