Rethinking User Research for the COVID-Minded Consumer


The pandemic has changed the way service companies and restaurants interact with their customers. Here’s how your research strategies and methods must evolve to respond to these changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every sector, and consumer behavior has already changed as people continue to adapt to this new environment. Even while businesses are scrambling, there are important growth opportunities to recognize and act upon.

One industry that has been majorly affected by COVID-19 is the service sector, particularly restaurants. With in-person dining all but eliminated for much of the last three months, these businesses have had to rethink menu items, marketing, staffing, workplace cleanliness and more.

While many restaurants are reopening at least in part under lessened restrictions, there will likely still be large numbers of people ordering takeout for pick-up and delivery rather than going in for the usual restaurant experience.

Businesses in the food sector must step up to better address these needs. Your strategy must evolve to account for the new normal, and a large part of that evolution will be focused on improving digital experiences and the processes behind delivery, takeout and curbside pickup dining.

User research today is harder for restaurants and other service businesses because many common research techniques are made harder by COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s a look at how behavior around eating out is changing and how food companies are adapting their research tactics to get a better understanding of the new mindset.

More people are ordering in during COVID-19

More and more people are ordering prepared food. After months of isolation, we’re all tired of cooking our own meals and coming up with new things to make. So, many of us have started ordering more from restaurants simply out of boredom, not just convenience.

Drive-through restaurants and those offering delivery are still the primary ways that people get prepared food, and this practice continues to increase.

We did a survey of 2,785 consumers to track whether ordering out increased during COVID-19. The data shows that 28 percent of respondents are ordering food online for delivery once or more a week now, compared to 22 percent before the pandemic.

So, consumer behavior has already changed from before COVID-19 to now. It’s important that you modify your consumer testing accordingly to get reliable feedback for the COVID-19 environment. A question like, “Are these menu items easily eaten in a car or at home,” helps you understand the experience people are having with your meals. Rather than focusing heavily on new recipes, focus on what service and experience modifications would be best for the new context.

A new approach for taste testing and labs

Another challenge that COVID restrictions present affects the way food labs approach sensory testing. It hasn’t been possible to have more than a dozen people in a room to assess their experiences in a laboratory setting. New methods are needed for restaurants to use these kinds of tests to keep improving their menus and meeting the needs of today’s diners.

One solution is sending customers on missions. They can be recruited in advance or on-site to participate in a real-time test of new menu items. Using virtual research techniques like video feedback tools and online surveys, we can go along with the customer through the experience of receiving, unpacking, preparing and enjoying (we hope!) the food.

MMR LIVE Founder Patricia Houston recently discussed new approaches to research that overcome COVID-19 restrictions with other industry leaders on a webinar hosted by Medallia LivingLens. That’s a great video to check out for a deeper dive into what we can do today with virtual research techniques.

To actually get the products in the hands of consumers, some companies are considering a drive-through central location test (CLT) where one restaurant location is given the necessary products and/or ingredients for people to take home and prepare according to testing instructions. You can hear Del Taco’s Tom Johnson discuss how they used this technique in the webinar linked above.

With the CLT approach, participants then take an online survey, participate in a Zoom call, or give qualitative feedback via video — all of which allow them to participate in full while maintaining social distance.

This kind of solution can be challenging since companies are so used to doing testing work at their corporate headquarters or a test kitchen. But with this new COVID-19 market, a more innovative approach is necessary so consumer research can still be conducted and used but adapted to these uncertain conditions.

One of the most important steps your business can take to understand how it must evolve for COVID-19 is to identify what’s changed for your target audience. How have mindsets changed? How have their shopping behaviors changed? What are the biggest priorities as the economy attempts to find some kind of new normal? The insights you gain from that process will benefit every aspect of your business.

The full impacts of COVID-19 are still unknown, so it’s crucial to stay flexible and ready to adapt to what consumers are looking for — and to adapt your testing methods to better match our new reality. Continue to gather feedback as you make adjustments and pay attention to what people actually want from your business.

To learn more about the Anywhere CLT — a Central Location Taste Test solution that MMR LIVE is developing in partnership with menu research experts PVR — register for a free consultation today.

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