2021 Predictions: Five Trends We Are Watching This Year

What did we learn from 2020? Perhaps, above all, that predictions can go terribly, crazily awry. Well, never mind that. We’re up for the risk, so we sat down with two of the most prescient people we know, Nis Frome, Feedback Loop’s co-founder and vice president of product, and Roddy Knowles, Feedback Loop’s vice president of research, to get their predictions for how research will look in 2021:

1. Agile research will take its rightful place in the researcher’s toolkit. 

Roddy: Research teams are increasingly charged with supporting teams that need to move fast. 2020 forced a lot of companies to increase the emphasis on developing digital products in agile ways, and on building and improving things that can meet changing consumer needs based on unforeseeable external factors. The need for research to support these types of agile, quick-moving teams will continue in 2021; the trend toward agile research as an important tool in the researcher’s toolkit is a real one.

2. Remote research is here to stay.

Nis: In-person research, at least for the foreseeable future, is not going to be possible, so it’s got to move as much to online as it can. There is a lot of really deep ethnographic research you would typically do in person — simply something such as observing people in a natural environment, where if you want to see how people get into a car and drive a car and do anything of that nature, you can’t really do that right now. So you’re either going to find a virtual replacement or some other sort of proxy for it. I think there’s a whole spectrum of research that just needs to be invented online or conducted remotely.

Roddy: The move to do more qualitative research in the digital realm is real and will last. It’s been happening for the past few years, but it accelerated in 2020, as so many digital things did. There is a pent-up demand to do research in person, when possible, and maybe 2021 will bring a future when we can actually talk to humans face-to-face reasonably close-up again. But whether that happens or it doesn’t, both moderated and unmoderated video qual research will continue to thrive.

3. Optionality may be the word of the year.

Nis: If you want to have a good time, go back and read reports from 2019 about the next 10 years, and either the industry they’re talking about no longer exists or the trend they thought would happen in 2030 is happening in 2020. Something you’re going to see in research and in business, in general, is both an explicit and an implicit confidence interval, which is the notion that if we’re going to say something, there’s going to be some level of confidence attached to it. If we say we think the future of work is going to be hybrid — office and not office — what we really mean is there’s a good likelihood, but we should be prepared for other scenarios, as well. If we think telehealth is going to be a trend that stays post-COVID, we have to acknowledge that there is a chance it won’t. We aren’t so much placing a bet as we are hedging a bet.

In the business world, that looks like, “Let’s sign a 3-year lease, not a 10-year lease.” The lease might be a little bit more expensive per month, per year, but we want optionality. There’s, perhaps, more open-mindedness than ever before, but few companies will want to be locked into anything. Companies are not going to sign long-term subscriptions or long-term contracts with new and unproven vendors. Everything is going to be experimental and about first demonstrating a proof of concept. For research, it might mean we’re going to do smaller studies, shorter studies, faster studies, more studies. Instead of just a single study on a topic, we might look at this from three or four different perspectives and make sure we’re mitigating the risk of one biased perspective.

4. Focus will change from the past to the future.

Roddy: We’ve seen budgets and planning shift from hindsight-focused research into foresight-focused research. Hindsight-focused research might mean a brand tracking study, which, essentially, says: “Hey, what do people think about my brand? What’s changed since last quarter?” It tells you what has already happened. In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t really do a great job of predicting the future.

In 2021, research that explains why things happened will become increasingly less important (but, to be clear, not without value) than research that can be predictive or that can keep a pulse on what is changing and what the future may hold.

5. The need for targeted, on-demand insights is going to grow exponentially.

Nis: The return from COVID is not only going to affect everything rapidly, it’s going to affect communities differently. So telehealth might have one trend in one community and a different trend in another community. Just speaking in generalizations is not going to work. Even within an organization, different product teams, different business teams, different parts of the organization that are working on different initiatives might need completely different sets of insights. The need for on-demand information is going to grow exponentially.

This makes the move to agile research even more important, because everything is changing every day. You don’t know what the next day is going to hold. The competitive advantage goes from listening to responding. Your product today, your product yesterday, your competitive advantage yesterday — it doesn’t matter. It’s going to expire, and your competitive advantage will be the ability to rehabilitate over and over and over.

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