There comes a time in any parent’s life when she has the face the inevitable: Her child’s first cell phone. That time has come at last for me, and I confess I have been dreading it. What if she buys 50 ring tones? What if she calls China? What if she sends a prank photo to a friend and ends up going to jail and having to register as a sex offender for life? (That’s right, I’m a parent: I can go from “my kid might overspend my money” to “my kid might go to jail” in ten seconds flat.)

It was with utter delight, therefore, that I stumbled across kajeet, a cell phone service for ‘tweens and their parents. What sets kajeet apart is not their phones (they don’t make any), or their network (they’re essentially a Sprint reseller), but the service. With kajeet, parents can fine-tune what their kids can and can’t do, and who pays for what. You can set up separate wallets for the parents and the kid, such that the parents can pay for phone calls to Mom and Dad, but the kid has to pay for calls to friends or goodies like ringtones and wallpaper. You can set up times of day for certain activities, like only emergency phone calls during school hours. You can even track the location of your kid’s phone using its built-in GPS and online tracking tools.

When I discovered kajeet, I was in parental heaven. The service was so exquisitely tuned to my needs that I started to get professionally curious. What was the process that had led to this product?

The kajeet origin story goes something like this: Three dads saw a need, and created a company. Now, that’s a great start, but there had to be more to that story. They must have done their homework. So to learn more I spoke with kajeet’s SVP of Corporate and Business Development, Carol Politi.

Research: Do it early

It turns out my hunch was correct: Long before launching their product, kajeet invested heavily in research. Combining a wide range of research techniques, both quantitative and qualitative, kajeet “tested it all,” Politi said. “Anything from the product name, to what features are important to parents and kids, to how they would find out about our product.” And it didn’t stop there; today research is just as important. “We send out new results every week,” Politi said. “We make sure everyone has access to raw data, and we make sure we talk about our research in meetings.”

Being so carefully in tune with customers has allowed kajeet to pursue opportunities that seemed dangerous at first. “Early on GPS was considered controversial, with us and others, and in the media. We held off on for a while because we were concerned about how kids and the industry would feel about that; we thought it would dominate the conversation.” Politi said. “But uniformly, our research said that parents wanted the feature and, somewhat surprisingly, that kids wanted it too.” Today, GPS tracking is not so controversial, and it remains a big selling point for kajeet.

Research: Do it often

Ongoing research has also allowed kajeet to capitalize on existing features that acquire new importance as the technological and social landscape changes. For example, kajeet allows parents to block incoming messages from certain phone numbers as a safety feature. What they hadn’t anticipated was that kids might want to block messages, too. “We had a use case in mind,” Politi said. “Parents may want to block some numbers, or use whitelists. What we didn't think of is that kids often want to block numbers because of cell phone bullying.”

Politi recognizes that research can be time consuming and expensive, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. “We do a lot of really scrappy research,” she said, “such as tacking questions onto the end of phone calls, or sending surveys out to our existing customer base. We recently launched into social media; we think that will get us some good data. You can overspend on research if you make it too complicated. If you can get a poll or something on your website, that's great. It’s biased, but if it aligns with other information you’re getting then it’s interesting; if it doesn’t, then that's interesting too.”

The take-home message? Research done right (early and often) helps companies create products that serve real humans with real needs, not just market segments. It takes more than just research to get it done, but without it you’re flying blind.