What’s Innovation Research and how is it different from Market Research?

December 1, 2014 – by Jean McDonnell

sylver_questioning_fa-i3-sm_dec02_14I recently celebrated my 6 month anniversary at Sylver Consulting . . . 6 months since I officially crossed over from the world I was professionally raised in (market research consulting) to the world I now, happily, call home (design-based innovation research). Innovation Research is not new to me. I’ve been an avid fan and occasional practitioner of its methods for more than a decade and, from the beginning, I felt a deep kinship to its particular approach to problem-solving. Indeed, that’s how I met Sylver’s founder, Brianna Sylver, years ago and how (she and partner Adriano Galvao tell me) I came to mind when the position of Innovation Research Director at Sylver opened up. But having an outside-in, peripheral appreciation of something is different than being immersed in it and being able to claim it as my own. Now I believe I can.

These last few months the “light bulbs” have been going off and I now have a richer, deeper, more visceral-level appreciation for this unique “brand” of research – at least the way that it is practiced here at Sylver Consulting. Recently a new client of Sylver’s articulated a question that I have grappled with myself for many years in reaction to the proliferation and blurring of the lines between many research disciplines, specialties and practices. Her question was (in so many words) “what the heck is innovation research and how is it different from market research”?  

Here at Sylver, we candidly acknowledge that “innovation” is an oft-overused word – thus, depending on how it’s used, it can stand for everything and nothing at all. But we use it because it represents a territorial space and set of practices that both overlaps with market research and distinguishes itself from it in some important ways. Coming from a more-or-less “traditional” market research background, I needed to experience these similarities and differences first-hand in order to truly understand and appreciate the distinctions.

The next time a client asks me this question, here’s my 4-point reply:

As innovation researchers . . .

We focus on the issues of “where to play” and “what to build”. Innovation research, of the kind practiced here at Sylver, is rooted in human-centered user experience and design strategy methods and training. These disciplines evolved from the need to create effective solutions to emerging human-centered (vs. business-centered) needs using adaptive technology. Before Innovation Research came along, Market Research “owned” the new product development process. Historically the job of market research was to utilize its understanding of consumers and its expertise in querying them to assess the value proposition of a new product idea and/or to provide direction for its development. This “classic” approach to new product development research worked for a good many years.       But as the need for bigger competitive breakthroughs arose and the success rate of new product introductions declined, it became apparent that a new way of identifying opportunity was needed. Enter “innovation research specialists” – researchers whose training includes a mix of business strategy, design-thinking, social theory and creative problem solving. As it happens, this unique kind of training and skill set (one which emphasizes rigor, creativity and analytic outcome) is what’s needed to tackle “fuzzy front end” problems. Not only do you get a good sense for where there is opportunity to play with innovation research, but you also get design/success criteria that help you identify how best to go after that opportunity.

We “design” research with the end (and the end user) in mind. A key criticism of traditional market research is the idea that it doesn’t go far enough beyond the “what” of the data into providing the “so what” and “now what” action steps that are needed. The market research industry is well aware of this and has gone to great lengths to provide added value to its clients, whether internal or external, via an increasingly greater emphasis on “insights” versus data. I believe the industry as a whole has made good progress in this direction. But what I’ve come to experience first-hand is that, for research to be truly actionable, it’s not enough to dig deep in to the results and “pull out” rich insights that might (or might not) be there. The research itself needs to be designed with the end in sight – meaning there needs to be a plan in place for how the data will ladder up to actionable outcomes. This requires a unique way of planning and designing the research (and particularly the analytic process) in such a way that it is guaranteed to deliver against these criteria in a clear, articulate, and unambiguous manner. This is a skill set that design-trained professionals bring to the table.

We are first and foremost researchers (not designers or marketers or product developers). This means that our attention is on the rigor that we bring to the research process as the means to inform the larger strategic questions being asked. In doing so, it’s important to be method-agnostic, allowing the objectives of the investigation to drive the approach vs. having a favorite method or tool that we advocate using for every project. Unlike market research which (in my experience) tends to be siloed into either quant or qual specializations or “design research” which is often based solely, if not primarily, in ethnographic research methods, true innovation research needs to be capable of employing a wide variety of qualitative and quantitative methods according to the needs of the project.

We are active users of collaboration, iteration and ideation practices. Like the word “innovation” itself, lots of lip service gets paid to these process-oriented activities but, in my experience, they rarely get used to full advantage in classic market research projects. Why? I think it’s a chicken and egg kind of situation. Historically these activities have been “hit or miss”, delivering an inconsistent experience and value that’s hard to see or measure in the final product or deliverable. As a result, clients tend to push back against them, providers are reluctant to insist on them, and both groups are willing to consider them expendable when time is tight – and when isn’t it? What diminishes in their absence, of course, is a level of buy-in, creativity and quality of synthesis that only well-designed group participatory activities like these can provide. Here at Sylver, these practices are designed for efficiency, productivity and are non-negotiable. They are understood to be so essential that they are built into every key step (planning, execution, analysis) of every research project.

Can traditional market research practitioners/companies play in the “innovation” space and do these things? Certainly there are many who do and some who do it well – but probably more who only think they do. As a strategic, forward-thinking qual expert, I thought I had everything it took to be a truly “innovative” researcher. But I’m glad to be immersed in a world where I’m challenged to new ways of thinking, exposed to new ideas, practices and tools for doing good research, and given the opportunity to help solve some very cool and interesting new problems.

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I Touch Screens, not Restroom Doors; design research and the restroom door

September 30, 2014 – by Matthew

Research at Sylver is most challenging (and yields the greatest reward) for me when it involves familiar, everyday products and services that compose our day-to-day living. (Mobile devices, air freshener, sunflower seeds, etc.)

These seemingly mundane objects and experiences contain depth and richness in their stories not always immediate with use. Exploring challenges related to these objects allows us to render the invisible visible, revealing meaning to the client and ourselves. This post explores the continually evolving public restroom, a favorite subject of mine.

Often messy, impersonal, and full of odors none of us enjoy (among other unpleasant characteristics); public restrooms perform an important role in many of our everyday routines. Each restroom is a unique system composed of hardware, interface design, layout, location, technology, space, people (!), and institutional policies. At the crux of each space (and my interest) are touchless technologies and entry/exit door(s). The latter being my nemesis.


A brief Twitter exchange between the author and Bradley Corporation

Public restrooms are shared communal spaces that usually begin the day clean and orderly then decline quickly into an unwelcoming state most of us limit our exposure to. Restrooms may be touched-up throughout the day, but rarely return to their morning lemon-scented purity. Maintaining a clean environment can be accomplished through an unspoken and informal alliance between the restroom’s custodial staff and its patrons. A simple idea, but patrons have different — and often conflicting — standards of cleanliness. Rubbish is disposed of on the floor; toilets are not flushed; seats are sprinkled on; and hands are not washed. Luckily, many of these inconveniences can be minimized through the use of touchless devices (flush, sink, soap, dry).

As sensor-based technologies become fully integrated into the everyday public restroom experience, opportunities for our hands to have contact with contaminated surfaces are reduced, enabling a more hygienic experience for patrons. Almost.

Emerging touchless technologies help improve hygiene, but fail at the door


Bradley information sheet

 William Winsor Elementary School (Greenville, Rhode Island) was the site of my earliest experience using touchless restroom technologies. Well, almost touchless. Outside of the first floor’s main restrooms sat a half-moon basin (possibly a Bradley sink) that was controlled by a single foot pedal running along the contour of the hardware’s base. A manual soap container (dispensing damp crumbly pink stuff) and a hand-crank paper towel dispenser were located on either side of the basin, which was shared between boys and girls. Puddles were unavoidable and excessive use of paper towels was the norm. Bathroom breaks were group activities that concluded with students clustered around the sink while multiple kids attempted to control the water flow (frequently leading to mischief and puddles).


Detail of a public notice posted within an Illinois Tollway Oasis restroom. (Photo Credit: Brianna Sylver @BriannaSylver)

Technologies present in today’s public restrooms have developed beyond Harry Bradley’s original pedal-triggered “Lavatory” washroom sink and my early 1980s K-6 facility. Whether you’re using a restroom at your place of work, a gas station along the way or at restaurant with friends, it’s not uncommon to find a suite of sensor-based touchless devices managing some or all of a facility’s material assets. Smart implementation of these tools can help conserve resources (electricity, paper, water, soap), reduce manual labor, minimize negative impact on the environment, eliminate specific types of vandalism, save money, and—often as a byproduct of the previous incentives—provide a more hygienic experience for patrons.

As emerging technologies continue to evolve restroom experiences (see Dyson’s faucet/dryer and Bradley’s Advocate system) and facilities shift from mixed touch-and-touchless systems to 100% touchless devices, a single obstacle remains in the way of the patron participating in a completely touchless experience — the exit door. Restrooms often require the patron to open a door manually to exit. This function immediately negates any actual or perceived health benefits achieved from an otherwise touchless experience.

The American Restroom Association states, “Restroom doors should be designed so that after one has washed their hands, exit is possible without touching a surface.” Door-free restrooms are commonly found in airports, malls, stadiums and similar-sized venues that need to manage large volumes of people. For smaller, more intimate spaces, door-free restrooms can be costly to install, cause unwanted noise pollution, and breach privacy.

Installing inward opening manual doors is a rational decision from a business’ point of view. Doors opening into hallway traffic have the potential to cause more accidents than doors that open into a restroom. For the patron, this can be a pain point. Touching a door handle following somebody who shared the restroom and did not wash his or her hands or not knowing if the previous occupants washed their hands can be frustrating. This is especially true at restaurants!







IKEA restroom sign “Caution: Open Door Slowly”

Solutions designed to remedy forced contact with door handles range from ad-hoc workarounds to fully engineered systems. A common practice by some people — myself included — is to exit a restroom by opening the door with paper towels (when available) and dispose the crumpled sheets in a nearby trash receptacle or the floor. My jump shot is awful; a trashcan located more than a yard away from the door usually results in my crumpled paper towel on the floor.

Innovations to handle design and/or door swing strive to improve the hygiene experience of the public restroom

SanitGrasp is a door handle resembling an oversized coat hook. Patrons use their forearm and the SanitGrasp handle together to swing the door inward. Foot Pull is a similar concept for a different appendage. Both devices address the concerns of a facility — reduce the possibility of litter and the labor required to clean it up for patrons — and those of a patron – reduced contact with a contaminated surface. But both solutions are a bit wonky.


Sign above IKEA automatic hand dryer

Some of IKEA’s restroom entrance/exit doors are bidirectional and leverage its customers’ common sense more than engineering to prevent accidents. A placard posted on the inside of a Chicago-area IKEA restroom door asks patrons to use caution and “open door slowly.” A reasonable request— assuming patrons read the card—but “caution” and “slowly” illicit subjective interpretations.

Hygiene as an Institutional Priority!


Hand sanitization unit outside of a Mariano’s restroom

Placing hand sanitizer stations outside of public restrooms seems to be an emerging trend lead by some airports, office buildings, grocery markets, restaurants, and similar establishments managing large volumes of traffic. This solution is a positive addition to public spaces because it is available for anybody to use (not just restroom patrons), neutralizes the negative effects of forced contact with dirty door handles, and requires a single unit to service multiple restrooms.


Collection of Chicago public restrooms

Public restrooms and the experiences they enable — while imperfect — are continually evolving. As you can tell from my post, I am quite enthralled with not only the history of the public restroom, but look forward to its future — and specifically how this pain point of the exit door gets resolved to sufficiently support the needs and requirements of patrons and host facility.

I know it sounds silly — and maybe even a little bit gross — but a project on public restrooms might actually be a dream project for me!

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Sylver’s 11th Birthday

September 12, 2014 – by Perry Shaffer

Sylver Consulting just celebrated it’s 11th anniversary, so the team decided to reflect on where we all were eleven years ago.

Birthday-Cake-With-Candles-7Brianna: September 10th, 2003, Brianna was crammed into her bedroom closet, avoiding the noise of construction on the street while she closed her first client on the phone for Sylver Consulting. An inauspicious beginning for what has been a fantastic journey for the company.


Adriano: On that day, Adriano was just outside the closet, eagerly awaiting the result of the deal. He was also beginning his PhD work in design methods at the Institute of Design at IIT.

Jean: In 2003, Jean was splitting her professional time between her marketing research consulting practice (JMD Research and Consulting) and her responsibilities as a an adjunct faculty instructor and assessment consultant to the Senior Seminar program at Columbia College Chicago. It was an exciting, busy and creative time in her life. And in retrospect, it was just about the closest she’s ever come to having the perfect work balance.

Perry: Eleven years ago, Perry was in her sophomore year of high school. Having gone from a magnet arts school with a class of 75 to a large suburban high school with over 3,500 students was a major shift, but she was very enthusiastic! She was very involved in the theatre program, as well as her work as an equestrian trainer and swim instructor.

Jen: Eleven years ago, Jen had just started her very first year of college at University of Illinois. She was very scared being away from home, had no idea what she wanted to be when she “grew up,” and was trying to find her place at a HUGE university. She was also probably going through sorority recruitment at the time, which included being judged by houses full of gir
ls every night of the week. Really fun times….She thinks 11 years later she is a much wiser, better person!

Kelly: Eleven years ago, Kelly was excited about taking her first biology and trigonometry classes for sophomore year, and finally getting used to high school.

Matthew: Eleven years ago, Matthew was living in Providence, developing the foundation of his curiosity in person-to-person interaction – primarily through computer-mediated design. People, geography, emotion, and the novel “photo phone” were all elements of his design.

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The Root of the Problem Starts with the Seeds

June 13, 2014 – by Austin Romero


ChipmunkThere once was a small farming village nestled into the quaint countryside. Each fall, beautiful songbirds would fly over the village on their journey down south. The villagers, showing great interest in observing the birds, began setting up feeding stations all around the village in order to draw more of the beautiful songbirds to the village. However, chipmunks, craving the sweet and savory taste of the bird feed, snuck into the bird-feeding stations and stole the feed. The villagers were outraged by the number of songbirds that, instead of choosing to stop by the village, flew right over it. They started to set up traps in order to capture and poison the chipmunks and before long, the songbirds came back and the village rejoiced.  The next harvest, the land was arid, lifeless, and unfruitful.  The villagers wondered why the land was so arid and why none of their crops had grown. What they didn’t realize was that the chipmunks’ system of burrows aerated the soil and provided fertile land to grow crops.

This simple parable highlights an issue that can take form in many ways in our lives and in our work. The villagers did not properly identify and understand the issue and suffered the ramifications of a swift decision that satisfied a current problem. In turn, this created an entirely new and graver problem in the process. Often times, we can rely on quick fixes or what we might think is the most “practical” and “straight-forward” solution to our problem. The issue with this is that without fully understanding the problem and its causes, we lose the ability to properly conceptualize and address the “root” of the problem. When making decisions and generating solutions, we must always fully understand the problem, issue, or challenge. This way, we can always be sure that we are pursuing a sustainable and lasting solution.


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Sylver Consulting Appoints Jean McDonnell as Director of Innovation Research and Strategy

June 6, 2014 – by Admin

Jean McDonnellJean’s role will be developing Sylver Consulting’s client portfolio in the youth and family market. Jean’s specialization in the youth sector has enabled her to work with organizations of all kinds and across a wide range of brands, topics and categories that span nearly every facet of a young person’s life. That experience will also allow her to expand the company’s research bandwidth across other industries.

She joins Sylver Consulting from her own consulting firm, where she was responsible for strategically driven qualitative and mixed-methodology studies in a varied number of industries and companies, including Nickelodeon, J.C. Penney, McDonald’s, Wrigley, PepsiCo, Discovery, AOL Media, KFC, Kraft and more. Prior to that, she served for 5 years as Adjunct Faculty and Assessment Consultant for Columbia College Chicago, and has also held senior positions at C+R Research. Jean holds a MA in Social Sciences/Sociology from The University of Chicago and a BA in Communications/Advertising from Ohio University.

Commenting on her appointment, Jean McDonnell said, “I am delighted to be joining the Sylver Consulting team and look forward to enhancing our services to support researcher needs in the youth and family market landscape, as well as  other market segments.”

Brianna Sylver, President, added, “Jean has a proven record of success in developing client partnerships and services. We look forward to leveraging for our clients the unique depth of youth experience she brings to the role.”

Contact Jean McDonnell: jean [at] sylverconsulting [dot] com

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Using cognitive psychology to improve presentations

March 27, 2014 – by Kelly

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Saracin

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Saracin

At Sylver, we’re always trying to think differently about presentations to improve the quality and accessibility of information. As a researcher, it’s easy to get excited about sharing all of your awesome results. It’s also easy to forget that presentation attendees aren’t quite as familiar with your work. This can lead to information overload, especially when you’re working with a large data set.

While cognitive psychology has much more to offer in terms of making sure an audience gets the most out of your research, I’ve included three quick examples that can improve the flow, understanding and overall quality of a presentation.

*It’s easier to build on previous knowledge than start from scratch. Try to connect new information to what’s already known. This will give the audience a starting point to build from rather than having to try to figure out exactly how this makes sense as it relates to their questions.

*Think about cognitive load. People can only work with about seven pieces of information and four connections at a time. Asking an audience to think about more than this dramatically impacts understanding of the concept you’re trying to convey. It results in information overload.

*Use schemas to frame your story. There are many different ways to describe a schema, but one of the most useful in this context is a visualization of how ideas connect. Something as simple as writing down the main ideas and using lines to symbolize how they relate can emphasize the most interesting results you have to share. This can also help to guide how a viewer codes the information into memory, making it easier to remember later and understand.

Bottom line, resist the “data dump” urge when sitting down to create your next presentation. Viewing what to share and how to share through a cognitive psychology lens will help you to avoid information overload and contribute to better understanding and retention of the information shared.



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Whole Mart Quickie

March 18, 2014 – by Matthew

wholemartMillennials are a core focus of Sylver Consulting’s current beverage/food research. One aspect of this group is the struggle between where Millennials are now (professionally/personally) and where they aspire to be. A small observation from Walmart renders this tension visible.

Monday afternoon, on the way home from work, I stopped at the Walmart Express located on Chicago Avenue to pick up an online purchase. As I waited by register 8 for my delivery to be retrieved from the stock room, there was a millennial male checking out groceries at register 4. As the cashier finished bagging his purchase, the millennial removed a brown paper Whole Foods bag from his trendy backpack, placed his smoke gray plastic Walmart bag into it, and exited the store quickly into the crowded flow of late afternoon downtown pedestrian traffic — anonymous, but cool.  

To be fair, had my box’s dimensions been a bit smaller, I would have carried it in my backpack. 

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Sylver’s Adriano Braun Galvao Teaches Design Thinking at CEDIM in Mexico

July 3, 2013 – by Admin


Sylver Consulting’s Vice President, Adriano Braun Galvao, recently traveled to CEDIM in Monterrey, Mexico to teach the Innovation and Implementation module as part of their Certificate in Innovation and Design Thinking (CID) program. The CID is a “five-month program focused on the design implementation of innovative and sustainable solutions that meet concrete needs of world users.”

Over the course of the program, students work on a wide range of projects. Some of those projects included:

– Developing a workspace solution to foster creativity and productivity
– Creating a reward system to alleviate stress in the workplace
– Helping indigenous people share and preserve their culture
– Helping dropouts re-engage with their community and workplaces

While teaching the fifth and final module of the CID course, Adriano shared his expertise with the students in an information-rich and hands on manner, covering concepts of idea selection, value proposition development, business model generation, concept refinement, and the development of an innovation implementation plan. Adriano’s experience in helping shape implementation strategies here at Sylver and experience in leading a number of strategic, future thinking efforts for the Brazilian government made him ideally suited as the teacher for this final module.

To view the full press release, click here.

To read more about CEDIM, click here

Click here to check out CEDIM’s Photo Album from this year’s graduation! 

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Sylver and Mozilla Deliver Engaging Presentation at Northwestern University

May 22, 2013 – by Admin

Sylver Consulting’s President, Brianna Sylver, and Mozilla’s User Experience Research Manager, Cori Schauer, recently shared background and insights from their collaborative work together in Latin America at Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute. Their presentation, “Designing for the Next 2 Billion Users: Firefox OS Focuses on Emerging Markets,” showcased how their collaborative efforts to understand the values, aspirations and mobile behaviors of the Brazilian Middle Class consumer impacted the development of Mozilla’s new Firefox OS device.

You can view the entire presentation below or by clicking HERE

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What Would You Prefer To Be Called When It Comes To Your Race +/or Ethnicity?

May 3, 2013 – by Rebecca

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on the U.S. Census Bureau communications study in advance of the 2010 Census. The Census Bureau and its agency of record, Draftfcb, wanted to test some communications concepts among various racial, ethnic and language-based segments of the population. So, the research team I was on conducted two waves of focus groups all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico, recording our participants’ responses to a variety of TV animatics and print ads.

When you’re working on a study like this, you can’t help but think about how people are being asked to slap some kind of “label” on themselves that might not fit within their own frames of reference. The 2010 Census form increased the number of options you could use to describe your racial and ethnic background and included some country-specific write-in boxes, so it wasn’t quite as narrowly structured as it had been in years past.

Question 5 from the 2010 Census asked about Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origins, which are considered “ethnicities” rather than races.


Question 6 asked about racial background, which seemed to me like a strange mishmash of skin colors, regions and countries.

Fast forward a few years to 2013, when we have a new Argentinian pope in the Vatican (does he think of himself as Latino?), a second-term president who’s black father was from Kenya and white mother from Kansas (does he think of himself as biracial?) and new immigration legislation on the table which will could affect multitudes of future hyphenated “______-Americans” (should you insert your country or region of origin here and, if so, which one?).

At Sylver, we wanted to find out more about what the typical individual living in America would prefer to be called if someone asked, so we conducted a simple nationwide qualitative study. Here were some of our findings:

– Participants gave us a very full range of responses, with no clear consensus of opinion.That wasn’t what we were hoping for, but it’s still a finding.

– While some wanted to be referred to by color (black or white), because that is simply how they view themselves, just about as many others preferred a hyphenated or unhyphenated “______+ American” descriptor (e.g., European-American, Pakistani American). For some in this latter camp, they said adding their region or country helped them feel connected to their heritage. Still others in our study said they wanted to think of themselves as just plain “American” or even “human.”

– “Black” and “white” as descriptors were viewed by some as positive or straightforward and by others as quite negative and not very precise.

Here is one of the questions we asked and a few verbatim responses from our participants:

Q: Thinking about the U.S. Census Bureau classifications (which we had exposed in previous questions) — but not limiting yourself to them — how would you personally prefer to describe your racial, ethnic and/or cultural background if someone asked you about it?

In the comment box, please finish this sentence …. “I would prefer to be called ___________ because _________________________.”


“I would prefer to be called mixed race because of my Japanese and Mexican heritage, even though I am mostly white.”

“I would prefer to be called Caucasian because that has fewer negative overtones (e.g., “white supremacist”) than “white.”

“American … it’s complicated.”

“Black — it gets right to the point and makes it clear to everyone.”

“Human because we all originated from the same place.”

So, as you can see, it is complicated. Bottom line, there is no doubt that “labels” such as these can be useful in census taking, research, market segmentation, advertising and communications, journalism and so on. But as a society, we should also be conscious that labels don’t always resonate and can potentially alienate individuals.

One last note … National Public Radio recently launched a new blog about race, ethnicity and culture in America called “Code Switch,” so we’ll be keeping an eye on that. In the meantime, do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this topic? We welcome your comments. And thank you to all who participated in our study.

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