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Field Reports

How KEEN Built a Continuous Discovery Process That Aligned Product, Design Marketing, Merch, and Insights

With the right approach and an improved research platform through dscout, KEEN unearthed deeper customer understanding than ever before.

Interview by Colleen Pate, Words by Kris Kopac, Illustration by Addie Burgess assisted by Midjourney

KEEN is a footwear company that's on a mission to make the world's "cleanest" shoes. That means taking actions like harvesting waste materials for reuse, removing harmful chemicals, and creating products with longevity.

The company’s cross-functional research team is a quartet made up of Insights, Product, Design, and Merchandising. KEEN's four departments work together throughout the season as a product is being created, from beginning to end.

As the Director of Fan Insights, Aura Nelson worked to implement a culture of continuous learning across the organization, inspired by product thought leader Teresa Torres.

Below, Aura dives into how the process, in tandem with dscout's platform, has enabled the team to conduct inspired research—and create their most fan-centric products to date.

Don’t feel like reading the interview? You can watch or listen to it in webinar format here.

What fueled your inspiration to drive this new research approach?

Aura Nelson: At the beginning of my second year at KEEN, I really wanted again to make sure that we had a continuous learning process in place. I read a book called Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres and I am constantly referencing it.

She outlines the process of creating value through continuous learning, through assumption testing, through opportunity generation, and all throughout that product creation process. Her examples focus mostly on the software industry, but they were super easy to adapt to the outdoor footwear industry.

But as the name expresses, it's a process! It's not necessarily about the product, it's about the process itself.

So I used her book to inspire what I was working on at KEEN. I created a guide to continuous discovery. I adapted her work and created this kind of concise conversational guide that really illustrated the value of that type of work.

I showed what the process would look like for our teams. I met with key leaders from around the business, the president, the head of product, our CMO, etc. and really started talking about what this could look like. Once I got their buy in, we were ready to roll.

In the first clothing season we launched we did a quick and scrappy version.

I have like two weeks to get something, you know, started at that point. But since then we've really worked hard to establish a process and we're continuing to improve, improve upon it and we'll continue to improve upon it over time. So it's still new for KEEN, but we've made great progress already and we're already seeing some impact.

Research is so much more impactful when you're starting with a clear outcome that everyone is aligned on.

Aura Nelson
Director of Fan (Consumer) Insights, KEEN

How did the quartet initially get formed?

Aura Nelson: So we had what was called the triad last year, and that was really focused on products.

Then insights and engagement is what we call marketing and then design. This year, Insights was brought into that quartet, which is really cool. So that really came more top down that was the leaders from across the organization saying we need to do a better job of working together.

For insights to have impact and in order to achieve those desired outcomes, everyone has to work together. So that's why we've seen the impact of everybody working together. When I do our workshops, I make sure that people from around the quartet are grouped together and breakout rooms, everybody.

You know, working together on that desired outcome, you know, that that's where we have the most impact. So I can't take credit for creating the quartet, but it definitely came from a desire at KEEN to make sure that everybody is working more closely together, because there was this recognition that outcomes are best achieved.

How can someone get started with the continuous discovery process?

Aura Nelson: Teresa Torres has a quote: “Continuous discovery is for product people who want to build products that their customers need and love.”

And I think with insights being such a critical part of building products that actually solve needs for our fans and our consumers, continuous discovery is for everyone.

So I highly encourage everyone to go check out her blog and start getting inspired, but keep in mind that we at KEEN don't do every single thing that is in her book. So she has this amazing, super rigorous process. What I've found is that I have had to adapt it to meet where we are as a business and where we are in terms of our kind of savviness in terms of how much everyone understands insights in the process.

One thing I work really hard to do is to democratize research and to involve everyone. So what that really looks like in practice might not be exactly where things depend on the organization—it’s an aspirational point for us to reach.

But what I would say is start with what you can do and then build from there. We've established a process and we're going to continue to get better and better and build on it. Once you start seeing the impact, I think it'll just kind of snowball from there.

Can you walk us through using different methodologies throughout the product creation process?

Aura Nelson: Yeah. So to share what this looks like, we've put together a visual.

Here is a high level of what this looks like in practice.

We have what we call our product quartet—leaders from product, design marketing, merch, and insights. The group works very collaboratively and the strength of our work comes from ensuring that everybody's working in lockstep with each other and that we're all working toward a desired outcome or outcomes for the season.

If there's one thing that you need to really focus on, it's starting with an outcome. Research is so much more impactful when you're starting with a clear outcome that everyone is aligned on. So what are we trying to achieve that will inform the research that you develop and create? Then everybody is very clear and intentional on what we're trying to get out of this. I think it motivates everybody and it also makes it really clear how we can work together toward that.

So we start with aligning on our goals during our long range planning process. We align on outcomes and all of the seasonal work that we do focuses on achieving those outcomes. This visual shows the key moving parts throughout the product creation process across the different teams in our quartet.

One thing to know is that our seasons start two years prior to a product launch, we call it pre-season work that we do before we get to our kickoff and merchandising product design insights.

Everybody plays a role in the process. For example, during our pre-season work, our design team and product team are meeting with retailers, doing market research, visiting stores, taking photos of products, and overall assessing what's out there and what's going on in the market.

At the same time, my team is working on getting things going with quant and qual research. This is where we do key driver analyses. This is where we do our deep fan understanding work on dscout. Then that work is brought into workshops and we identify opportunities. That's a critical part of continuous discovery.

Those opportunities are then distilled, aligned, and then get passed off to our design and product teams. Again, everybody's aligning on this every step of the way. Our product and design teams draft briefs.

And then you can see like there's a second half of the seasonal work where we lean more into quantitative testing to look at purchase intent, incremental reach, marketing optimization, and really kind of bringing it all the way to our sales meeting.

With all of these pieces, we have this thread where we can see where Fan Insights have really informed the product creation process.

Could you walk us through a recent project where you used this approach?

Aura Nelson: Very recently we launched some winter boot research we are kicking off Fall/Winter 2025.

We wanted to really take a step back and understand what was going on with our fans in terms of their needs, wants, desires, and pain points when it comes to winter boots.

Above is a screenshot from a participant on the dscout platform. She's one of about 60 people that participated in this research.

Setting this project up we started with an outcome—we really wanted to come to the table in a strong way and really understand kind of the evolution of winter for our fans.

So we started with the assumption that winter is changing and with it, our fan needs are changing. We needed to understand where performance comes into play and where style comes into play.

So we were really intentional about creating this work. An example outcome for this would typically be tied to a specific goal in terms of market share.

Typically an outcome would be to capture a certain amount of market share, or expand our business in this way, or become known as a brand that X/Y/or Z.

So to better understand the opportunities that we needed to focus on, we did this research on dscout.

We used dscout’s diary tool. And we talked to our fans about what winter looked like to them and what they're currently wearing. We talked to them about their pain points, their desires, their needs. We asked them to shop for winter boots and one of the tools that I love for this is screen recording on dscout.

Not only was it impactful for us in terms of understanding how people shop and what they're looking at when it comes to winter boots, but we also shared that with our DTC team and said, “Look, this is how people are shopping. These are the keywords they're using. They're really starting with Google and Amazon.”

And so now, you know, our DTC team also has this great playlist of videos, seeing how fans shop for winter. From there, we assign our KEEN teammates from around the business to observe scouts on dscout. I set everything up so that they're responsible for reading through and viewing responses. They represent specific scouts that are opportunity workshops.

So this is where we take everything that we're learning in dscout and we use Lucidchart to create inspiration boards.

Our inspiration boards are really important for our design and product teams, because a lot of the time we hear from fans and they say, “Oh, style is really important to me.” What on earth does that mean, right?

Everybody has a different perception of style. So basically we take everything that we're learning, products that they love, products that they hate, and we're putting quotes from dscout and images from dscout into this board.

This is a board that I ask everybody across product design, marketing insights, etc. to start adding to, so not only are we getting input from our fans on this board, we're also adding images from retail that we see.

If we run into somebody and they're wearing something interesting, or we have an interesting conversation about what winter boots are for them and why they chose the boots that they chose, we can add that to this board.

So this is kind of a living, breathing board that we are going to continuously build upon for inspiration for future seasons as well, so developing a process is super important.

And so what we did is we took all those findings from dscout, from our Lucidchart boards, and then we brought that into this opportunity identification workshop. What comes out of these workshops is identifying the opportunities that will most likely achieve our outcomes.

After we've kind of gone through and identified pain points, needs, desires from our fans, and we've written them in the form of opportunities for KEEN, then we take all of those key opportunities and we discuss them as a leadership team and rate them based on if it's a real opportunity.

What's the market size for this opportunity? How important is it to our fans and how well does this actually fit with KEEN and what we're trying to achieve for the season and for the business?

From there, we identify a number one and number two opportunity for our teams to take. Our product and design teams take those and they build them into the briefs.

So the next day in our kickoff, the opportunities that we identified from this winter boot research are fully visible in our briefs. Everything that we learned throughout this process in the front end of our season. I just look through all of the briefs and our seasonal kickoff and you can see all of this work reflected in what we're focusing on.

We know it's going to achieve the desired outcome because again, we were really intentional about aligning on that. Researching and focusing on opportunities that will achieve that outcome.

Where does dscout fit into your overall discovery process?

I mentioned doing quantitative research as part of this and doing a key drivers analysis. One thing that we learned through that is the importance of style. But again, there's only so much that you can learn from a quantitative study.

What on earth does that mean? So, especially for footwear and apparel companies researching something as subjective as style, there’s a limitation that we run into with quantitative research. We just can't get that deep understanding of what style looks like.

Working with dscout and doing in-depth diary studies, we actually get to see examples of what style means to fans. We can better understand what they love, what they hate, so that we can start to see where that polarization is and we can develop themes around that.

Our design and product teams really benefit from actually seeing visuals—we have hundreds of images of products that our fans love and products they hate along with quotes, explaining why that is. Now we have a very, very clear understanding of what's aspirational for our fans from a style perspective. We could not do that without dscout.

How do you build quick turn response from fans into your process?

Yeah I'd say this is especially important when we have a concept or are in the sample phase and we really want to understand what people are thinking overall. That's part of the continuous discovery process, connecting with fans on a regular basis. This way we aren't just kind of doing inspiration work and then walking away from our fans.

We want to have those quick check-ins whether we're getting feedback on a brand campaign or getting feedback on a product concept.

One example of this is a few days before we had a key seasonal meeting, our utility team asked me if we could get feedback on one of their key story products.

We weren't able to do that on the front end because it was launching—I wasn't even at KEEN when the product started and the brief was built. But we were able to hear from 50 people, 50 utility customers and get feedback really quickly.

Within two days we had all the feedback that we needed on the concept and then we went into our sales meetings with great quotes and videos of people talking about that product.

So that's where I would really use Express to get quick, high-quality responses. I can stitch together videos and use closed ended questions. If we quickly reach 100 people, then we can feel pretty confident in being able to share results in terms of purchase interest and intent.

All of our product briefs for kickoff tie back to the insights that we learned from our research on dscout. Whether we're looking at our performance or lifestyle categories—it's all tied back to that. That's where I see the impact, our teams are really injecting that they're using it.

Aura Nelson
Director of Fan (Consumer) Insights, KEEN

What advice would you have for folks looking to create a more customer-centric organization?

Aura Nelson: To share a little background, I came from the academic world, my whole career trajectory was focused on becoming a professor. So I approached research pretty academically for a while and really got in the weeds.

I would share everything that we learned. So what I would say is that it's important to take a step back and work really closely with partners from around the business, to understand what type of research and what type of findings actually has an impact.

So I've been really intentional at KEEN about understanding as much as I can about the business, about the products that we're creating, about how briefs are built. And understanding the timeline for the go to market process. That’s really important to be able to collaborate and talk with teams and understanding the cadence.

If you are working on research at the wrong time, it's just not going to have an impact. So it’s about understanding the cadence, understanding those points at which research really needs to come in order to have the most impact, and understanding what type of information is most essential to them in order to write their briefs.

A few of the questions that I often ask when we're getting research started is, “What do you wish you knew that you don't know now?” And that often helps me understand the gaps in knowledge that people have.

Another thing I would mention is really involving stakeholders and encouraging them to help you improve upon the process. Doing these postmortems and talking about, “How did that work? How did that opportunity workshop feel to you? Is there anything that we could do differently next time?”

Continuing to iterate on the process and involving stakeholders as your teammates is really important.

How do you measure impact in terms of fostering a more research-centric culture?

Aura Nelson: Fostering a research center culture is one of my three pillars of what I actually came to KEEN with the intention to do.

It really comes down to involving other teams and aligning on outcomes, making sure that you're working collaboratively is super important. Because we are working two years out, we have not been able to get to the point where the products that are actually out in the market right now have gone through this process—that's going to start happening in 2025.

So while we don't have actual sales numbers yet, there have been a couple of things that we've learned throughout the process that have an impact.

One of the areas that I see impact is that there's been a significant shift in how we talk about the fan and the importance of fan insights in the go-to-market process and in the brief writing process.

Using the dscout platform to show our fans getting in depth, and showing images of what's aspirational to them, their influencers, etc. that's all embedded into that.

Then all of our product briefs for kickoff tie back to the insights that we learned from our research on dscout. Whether we're looking at our performance or lifestyle categories—it's all tied back to that. That's where I see the impact, our teams are really injecting that they're using it.

Then we aren't going rogue after learning something, it's actually carried through in our briefs and those briefs will become products that all tie back to this research.

Democratizing research for me really means making sure everyone has a role to play and access to the results. It's not just boom, here's a report. It is critical to make sure everyone is involved.

Aura Nelson
Director of Fan (Consumer) Insights, KEEN

How are leadership responding to showing videos and quotes to the broader team?

I think this is where we also have a ton of impact.

In my earlier roles as a consumer insights professional, I think there are a couple of different ways that we can approach customer insights, consumer insights, fan insights, etc. I have worked on teams that felt more like consultancy. We own the research, we're doing it, we're owning it, we're writing the reports, and then we sit down and we share it.

It's like, all right, here's a meeting, we're sharing the results.

At KEEN, part of being a fan-centered culture is making sure that everybody's connected to the fan. Everyone that needs to be connected to the fan is connected to the fan. And for that to happen, every scout (participant) has someone representing them.

They're reading through all their responses. They're listening to their videos. Then we're taking those images and those quotes and we're putting it into that inspiration board I mentioned.

Everyone has access to that inspiration board and we are really involving everybody. Democratizing research for me really means making sure everyone has a role to play and access to the results. It's not just boom, here's a report. It is critical to make sure everyone is involved.

Scale your retail research with dscout

Gather continuous insights, quickly gut-check prototypes and concepts, and lean on one tool for all of your research needs. See how dscout can help you keep human insights at the center of decision-making. Speak with a member of our team to see our platform in action.

Colleen is the Customer and Community Marketing Manager at dscout.

Kris is a content creator and editor based in Chicago.

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