The Problem with Focus Groups

Stephen DeAngelis

January 18, 2013

At first glance, it appears that Gianfranco Zaccai, co-founder and president of the global design and innovation consultancy Continuum, is on a quest to rid the world of focus groups. “Think about it,” he writes, “how many great ideas have you had sitting around a table? If you are like most people I know, not many.” [“Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation, From The Designer Behind Swiffer,” Fast Company Co.Design, 18 October 2012] He continues:

“Yet, time after time, companies looking for a winning idea gather a group of people around a table to ask them what they would like. Other times, companies may actually develop innovative ideas–but then their impulse is to convene a focus group to critique them and, more often than not, undermine them.”

Zaccai insists that during his 40 years in the design field he has “never seen innovation come out of a focus group.” He writes even more emphatically, “Let me put it more strongly: Focus groups kill innovation. That’s both because of what they do and what they don’t do.” He explains:

“As Steve Jobs famously asserted, true innovation comes from recognizing an unmet need and designing a creative way to fill it. But focus groups can’t identify those needs for the simple reason that most people don’t know what they are missing until they experience it. A focus group can work in adding incremental improvements to an already existing product or service. But for truly game-changing ideas, they are more likely to cast doubt and skepticism upon them just because they are unfamiliar.”

Zaccai’s point is a good one. Truly innovative ideas often time for their full potential to be realized. Even great innovators don’t fully understand how their game-changing products are going to be used until they are put into the hands of consumers. For example, people have done some amazing things beyond playing video games with the technology used in Microsoft’s Kinect system. I agree with Zaccai that a focus group probably wouldn’t have come up with any of those ideas. He goes on to describe how a few famous products would have been stillborn had his company listened to focus groups. He writes:

“When Continuum pitched an idea to Reebok for a new basketball shoe that would use inflated air to better support the ankle, thereby reducing injuries, the brand manager for basketball shoes said he wasn’t interested because he had never heard about a need for that from a focus group. When we proposed the idea to a high school basketball team, the response was even worse — the players openly laughed at the concept. But when the team members actually used an early ‘experiential model’ of the shoe during practice, they were won over by how cool it was to have a shoe form-fitted to their feet. Over time, they were even more enthusiastic as they realized they could play more confidently without fear of injury. Like that, the Reebok Pump was born.”

He reports that Herman Miller had a similar experience when he debuted his now iconic mesh chair. “At the time, office chairs were made one way — with lots of padding, and the more of it the better. A chair with a simple mesh backing looked ugly and uncomfortable. It was through experience using the chair that people realized how revolutionary it was, both in terms of comfort and style.” Two things are clear from the anecdotes presented by Zaccai. First, the innovative ideas weren’t generated by focus groups. Second, users were nevertheless essential in process. In both cases, consumers were convinced of the value of a product after they had tried it. So it appears that “testers” of some kind do have some benefit. It is a matter of timing. Zaccai admits as much. “All of this may sound easy,” he writes, “and of course, it’s not. So what do you do in place of the all-important focus group?” His first recommendation is: “Consider not just the act of using the product but the total experience around it.” He explains:

“Most cleaning product companies, for example, look at the act of cleaning a floor. When Continuum developed the original idea for the Swiffer, we looked at the entire cleaning experience, including buying, using, washing, storing, and discarding the product. That extra research led to a truly game-changing product. Similarly, with the Reebok Pump, we looked not only at the experience of the athletes on the court but also at the mom buying basketball shoes for her son every few months because the shoes no longer fit, or the basketball player getting benched because he got injured from ill-fitting shoes.”

David Kelly, founder of IDEO, agrees with Zaccai that good designers are great listeners and observers. Like Zaccai, he believes that designers need to observe consumers actually using products in their normal environment under actual conditions. Zaccai’s next recommendation is to “go beyond the obvious to what cannot be seen.” He explains:

“When we designed the Swiffer, we conducted a microscopic analysis of the dirt on the floor before and after cleaning and discovered that most of the problem was dust, and that dust is best removed without water. We found that most people spent extra time sweeping the floor before they mopped it. Then, they spent more time cleaning the mop head than they did cleaning the floor. The Swiffer combined sweeping and mopping into a single mess-free act, ending up with a cleaner floor overall.”

Zaccai’s third recommendation — “test new products out in the field” — is closely tied to his first recommendation. He explains:

“Just because an idea is a good one doesn’t mean that people will immediately jump for joy the first time they hear about it. You need to test early, and you also need to test in context, directly with the people for whom it’s intended. That’s what we did with the Reebok Pump and the basketball team, and it gave us different feedback that we could use to refine and improve the product.”

The folks at IDEO call this the “deep dive.” If you are unfamiliar with IDEO’s “principles of design thinking,” you might want to take a few minutes and watch the following ABC Nightline piece called “The Deep Dive.” Although the clip is about redesigning the humble grocery cart, it is the process not the product that is important.

Zaccai’s final recommendation is to “invest in leaders who recognize the importance of calculated risks.” He writes:

“The Reebok Pump wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the green light from Reebok’s president, who recognized the possibility of a truly revolutionary concept, and then made the decision to follow through with development. At the end of the day, you can’t make decisions based solely on dollars or because of what people are saying; you have to make decisions based on your gut about what you feel is the right thing to do.”

My only caveat to the advice about using “your gut” instincts is that you need to be able to admit you were wrong if your gut lets you down. Too many leaders follow their gut instincts to ruin because they can’t admit they made a mistake. In response to Zaccai’s attack on focus groups, Paul Marsden claims that “Zaccai is attacking a straw man.” [“Do Focus Group Kill Innovation?” Brand Genetics Blog, 31 October 2012] Marsden continues:

“Sure there are some innovation consultancies out there that misuse consumer groups for polling and screening innovation ideas. But any agency worth commissioning will know that this is a pointless misapplication of the focus group, and belies a pitiful ignorance of qualitative research. Focus groups are not for mini-polling. Focus groups generate the understanding that acts as creative stimulus for people who understand innovation and understand consumer behaviour. The output of a focus group is input into the creative and analytical process, not an output. In other words, focus groups don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about. So, if you are simply taking at face value what consumers say in a focus group, you are missing the point. Likewise, if you are listening to consumers’ explanation for why they think or do things; an exercise based on the myth that people have some privileged understanding of their motivations. That’s not what focus groups are for. Consumers have genuine expertise … as consumers. It is in their capacity to stimulate innovation and improvement of ideas in experts and trained professionals that their value lies.”

Zaccai admits, “Focus groups aren’t useless. They can be insightful for fine-tuning something for the short term.” In a follow-up article, he writes, “I believe that focus groups have a place in the process. In fact, in my career as a designer, I have seen focus groups used to great benefit — but only when applied at the right time and in the right way. The trick is knowing how and when to use them.” [“Focus Groups Are Dangerous. Know When To Use Them,” Fast Company Co.Design, 9 January 2013] He goes on to discuss the three steps that he believes are involved in the innovation process. The first step involves engaging “with people in a one-on-one context.” He explains:

“Rather than a focus group, we call this a ‘contextual focus.’ It’s learning what people do in a particular context and the value that has in their life. The context may be their car, home, or job, and even in the life of significant others. In a sense, you could call this deconstructing the focus group. Rather than a group, you are using a focal point to better understand real people communicating valuable information in response to stimuli in their real lives. A focus point may also involve what cannot be seen but impacts people’s experience; that is, exploring the physics, chemistry, or economics of a problem; learning what dirt in a home really is and what removes it most effectively.”

In other words, the first step involves the deep dive. Zaccai’s second step in the innovation process involves coming “back to the table to make sense of what is uncovered in step one.” He writes:

“This is the time to ideate and figure out how to resolve problems and address unconscious needs; conceptualize unexpected but meaningful innovation while still embedding it in the familiar. During this stage, we rapidly prototype a lot of different ideas and test them in a controlled environment, looking to fail quickly if they don’t work, but learning from each failure. We call this the ‘focus filter.'”

His final step in the innovation process involves taking the refined product “to a focus group.”

“Once you get closer to the real thing and have a truly innovative product, then you can go to a traditional focus group to help you figure out how to place and position it. … Focus groups are about fine-tuning for mass appeal — about evolving the truly revolutionary ideas to the point where they will be embraced by the majority of consumers, while at the same time not losing the essential points of what made them innovative in the first place. For informing that evolution, focus groups serve a very useful and valuable purpose. Just don’t expect them to be where those revolutionary ideas originate.”

I agree with Zaccai that focus groups aren’t the right mechanism for generating revolutionary ideas. I also agree with him and Marsden that focus groups have their place. Just ask the producers of Broadway shows or motion pictures about the importance of test audience reactions to their productions. More than one of them has changed a script because of test audience reactions. Focus groups are part of the listening and observing process that all good designers use.