After Its Initial Success, Agile Research Spread Throughout the Company

AutoTrader.com iPad app screenshot

Rachelle Petusky of Cox Automotive and Colleen Harris of MarketVision Research shared their experiences with agile market research at the Marketing Research Association’s Corporate Researcher Conference in Chicago this week.

When AutoTrader’s development team said that they needed continuous research to inform their agile software development process, the Cox consumer insights team wasn’t initially sure how to respond. Research teams typically turned around results in months; they certainly didn’t provide feedback each week. Cox reached out to MarketVision Research, who suggested developing a closed online community to provide continuous feedback throughout the agile development process.

With two thirds of AutoTrader site visitors already using multiple platforms during their search for a new or used car, the AutoTrader development team wanted to develop a tablet app that would facilitate these searches. To inform the software development, MarketVision recruited 30 iPad users who were considering purchasing a car in the next three months. The goal was to have them quickly iterate through app designs to deliver a better product, while learning how car shoppers approach the buying process and the use of tablet apps in general.

Research participants were quickly trained to expect a weekly cadence. Two or three exercises, designed to take no more than 20 or 30 minutes in total, were loaded to the online community every Wednesday. Exercises would take the form of discussions, quick polls, short surveys, blogs, photo and video exercises, and collage activities using MarketVision’s proprietary collage tool. One week might lead off with a wire-frame sketch of the tablet app’s user interface, with the following week exploring app or car-buying questions. This on-again, off-again, cycle gave the development team time to digest the findings and develop the next round of wire-frame designs for community participants to respond to.

Rachelle and Colleen developed an editorial calendar of research topics, including:

  • App home page (starting screen) review
  • Dream cars
  • AutoTrader app help
  • Favorite apps
  • Cars and Reviews app feedback
  • iPad apps used per month
  • App regret
  • App discovery

Had the new tablet app been developed without the benefit of market research, it would have missed the mark in four key areas:

  1. Home page – The initial assumption was that shoppers wanted to start with the brand, yet early mockups of the app’s home page revealed that in fact many shoppers hadn’t yet decided on a brand. Eventually the home page was redesigned to provide more search and discovery options, including searching by price and proximity to the consumer’s location, while still supporting the minority who knew the brand they wanted from the get-go.
  2. Social sharing – Any app team today will naturally consider social sharing features, and a planned feature was to enable shoppers to share the top five cars they were considering. In fact, though, shoppers regarded this as highly private and personal information, revealing their socioeconomic background or where they were financially. Consumers weren’t ready to share their shopping until they had bought the car, at which point they were proud of it and wanted to show off their purchase. As a result, social sharing was moved to the end of the process.
  3. Feature priorities – While the expectation was proven correct that tablet users didn’t need all the functionality of the full web site, the development team had underestimated the importance of some capabilities, such as comparisons, which were prioritized for inclusion.
  4. User interface – The wireframes (sketches of the user interface) often didn’t match consumer expectations, and were quickly redesigned prior to actually developing these designs. Clever interface elements often gave way to more traditional UIs; for instance, an early design featuring spinners to select the years of cars to search for gave way to a more traditional slider. The revised wireframes sparked greater engagement: “Remember what we showed you in week 1? We’ve heard your feedback and made some changes. Tell us what you think!” This demonstrated that their feedback was valued and was making a difference.

Using agile market research gave the product team the feedback they needed to advance the app sprint by sprint.

The shift to agile market research to support agile software development was so successful that other groups within the Cox Automotive family of brands were soon clamoring for their own research using agile. As a result, MarketVision and Cox have collaborated on many other agile research projects as well, including the following topics:

  • Shopper insights
  • Development of other apps
  • Website feedback
  • Public relations issues

The teams now deliver research on a weekly basis.

Agile market research, originally geared towards the software development team, so demonstrably proved its value that its use has since become widespread within Cox Automotive.

Jeffrey Henning, PRC, is president of Researchscape International, which provides “Do It For You” custom surveys at Do It Yourself prices.  He is a Director at Large on the Marketing Research Association’s Board of Directors. You can follow him on Twitter @jhenning.

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