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Improving product propositions with qualitative research

Published 27 Sep 2021 4 minute read

Market Research
Proposition Development

Qualitative market research plays a central role in successful proposition development, in that it is a reliable way to understand your market’s emotional needs.

In this article, we explore how qual research can strengthen proposition development with emotional insights.

Product propositions often put too much focus on rational arguments: features X, Y and Z offer benefits 1, 2 and 3. This seems straightforward and obvious: after all, if people have said they want benefits 1, 2 and 3, why not create something that gives it to them?

Here’s the thing: human beings are not straightforward creatures. 

Let’s say the market has indicated: “We want to find more time in our day to read.”

It’s a good idea to create a product or feature that does indeed meet this need. But when developing a product proposition - the thing that describes the product or service and why one should buy it - echoing the benefit back risks falling short.

“Feature X lets you find more time in your day to read” -  rational, yes. Effective and persuasive? No.

Emotions drive people’s decisions

A proposition’s job is to guide marketers towards persuasive, effective messaging. The end goal: convince someone to buy the product or service.

Statistics do have a place in the development of a proposition, but they are rarely the stuff that does the persuading.

People make almost every decision with a heavy dose of emotion - whether it’s conscious or not. We want to feel good about choosing to buy something. We want to feel smart, or excited. We want others (maybe a boss, partner or colleague) to approve or be impressed with our decisions.

We rarely think about these emotional needs, instead, we justify choices with rationality and logic (after all, it can be quite the feat of vulnerability to admit that you bought something because it made you feel really clever).

Excellent product propositions understand this gap between what people say they want and the true feelings that lie beneath. Excellent product propositions tune into the emotional layer and resonate with consumers instead of offering up a checklist of stated needs.

To understand more about the stages of proposition development, read our article: Developing and testing business propositions with research

Understanding the why behind stated needs

Qualitative market research uncovers and unpacks the hidden emotional layer.

We know the market’s indicated the following: “We want to find more time in our day to read.”

Qual research would aim to get into the why of this stated need.

A study might invite a group of target consumers into a focus group or online research community, and start with a simple question: “What was the last book you read?” or “When did you start to read for reading’s sake?” A skilled moderator would then open up a discussion around why these people want to read, how it makes them feel, and what the rewards are. Then they may probe deeper into what it feels like to not be able to read as much as they’d like. This technique is called a ‘deprivation task’.

The overarching goal of the qual research would be to get insight into several aspects of a seemingly simple need:

  • Why is reading so important to you?
  • What prevents you from reading?
  • How did/do you come to the conclusion that you weren’t reading “enough?”
  • What’s “enough” mean to you?
  • If you could easily control how much you read per day, how would you go about allocating time?

And so on.

Discover how we worked with Vouchforme to unearth the emotional insight that disrupted the consumer insurance market

You can also read more about 'moving from thinking to knowing' in our article - How to find out if people really want your product or service

But back to developing our proposition, with insight successfully gathered, the researchers and product team can then synthesize them into the context of a product proposition, or perhaps multiple propositions. One outcome of good qual research can be the identification of several subgroups inside of one previously monolithic needs statement.

A series of observations and insight may look like this:

  • The best part of reading is how immersive it can feel
  • Many consumers are reading on phones or eReaders
  • Notifications and alerts interrupt and disrupt the immersion
  • Yet people don’t identify these alerts as the problem, because they’re so ingrained into daily life
  • Consumers don’t actually want more time per day to read, what they need is a passive defense against distraction on digital devices, without being lectured about it

The resultant feature set might be a guided immersion exercise paired with an intelligent notification muting system. 

The proposition wouldn’t lead with anything about “getting more time to read” or “muting annoying notifications” (these are dry, factual benefit statements). Rather, the proposition might spin a tale about slipping into the world of your favourite books and not emerging until you’re good and ready.

Facts and figures and explanations of the feature set still might be delivered in the proposition, but the heart of it is an emotional approach.

Qual research can support an entire lifecycle of the proposition

Product propositions evolve with the product. A brand new product is rarer and riskier, and you’re seeking uptake from early adopters… but a mature product may only need a set of improvements.

Regardless, the emotional core of consumer decision-making still remains. It just may have a different angle, depending on if you’re in the business of creating a market or simply trying to retain customers.

For example:

  • Early-stage, post-launch. Your product is out there, and you have some traction. But there is still a lot to learn in testing and getting feedback from users. You could discover through qual research that people feel awkward about telling their friends about the product, even if they themselves actually love it.
  • Mid-stage, near maturity. You’re tasked with updating or reimagining the product. An emotional insight may be that competitive activity has led to the feeling of commoditization of the category in general—therefore the challenge may not be product-centric at all!
  • Late-stage, sunsetting. Sales are down and it may be time to retire the product. But you could discover a niche group of nostalgic power users that are willing to adopt the product to preserve it—this may be a fantastic opportunity for either marketing or new product development.

Qual research isn’t the only way to uncover emotion-based insight and understanding, but it is one of the most reliable methods. Getting to know your customer, and creating space for candid, trusting conversation often leads to many hidden paths and findings.


Leaving out emotion-based persuasion is a common weakness in proposition development. It may be simple and straightforward to list features and benefits a product provides - but your customer is anything but simple and straightforward.

Qualitative research is particularly well-suited to cover this gap and has a big role to play in creating strong product propositions for any stage of the lifecycle.

Read more about how we combine social science and machine learning to unearth human insight here.

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