Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation, From The Designer Behind Swiffer

The Aeron chair, the Swiffer, and the Reebok Pump--none of these breakthrough products would have gotten high marks from a focus group. Here, Continuum’s Gianfranco Zaccai lists four steps to take before introducing a design to the masses.

Think about it: How many great ideas have you had sitting around a table? If you are like most people I know, not many. 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.

In my 40 years working in design and innovation, alongside some of the most brilliant minds in the business, I have never seen innovation come out of a focus group. Let me put it more strongly: Focus groups kill innovation. That’s both because of what they do and what they don’t do.

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.

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.

The same thing happened when Herman Miller debuted its first 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. Now, the Aeron Chair is standard on movie sets whenever the director wants to furnish the office of somebody “cool.”

All of this may sound easy--and of course, it’s not. So what do you do in place of the all-important focus group?

1. Consider not just the act of using the product but the total experience around it.

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.

2. Go beyond the obvious to what cannot be seen.

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.

3. Test new products out in the field.

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.

4. Invest in leaders who recognize the importance of calculated risks.

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.

Focus groups aren’t useless. They can be insightful for fine-tuning something for the short term. But true innovation is about more than just incremental improvement, it’s about revolutionizing a product or a service; in fact, it should be about redefining an experience. A Swiffer is still recognizable as a mop; a Reebok Pump is still a basketball shoe; an Aeron Chair is still an office chair. But in each case, the innovation embedded into the product created a real change in people’s lives.

Put another way, oftentimes designers are asked to make evolutionary improvements, making something look a little better or improving its ergonomics. Revolutionary ideas are riskier, and take longer to do, but when they are successful, they allow you to completely change the paradigm. No focus group has ever done that.

[Image: Gallows via Shutterstock]

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36 Comments

  • roger belveal

    Great Article.  Lots of gems in here with useful implications.  Taking what users say or ask for at face value is a common mistake.  Better to listen for understanding of process, pain points, and self-prescribed remedies that may be crude, but can be applied in a more sophisticated manner.  That's the nature of design thinking, not being a puppet to non-designers bad design advice.

  • Mark Capper

    There are research processes that can provide insight into what consumers will want and need in the future. Qualitative research and even focus groups can play a role in this process as well. 
    When we want to invent something new for the future, we must study and learn about the future. For this we use future scenarios. We have used this process on projects for Microsoft, BMW, Johnson Controls,  Agilent and others. I learned this tool while working for Herman Miller and it is used by many of the most innovative organizations. This tool allows us to contextualize the world in the future by creating stories based on the confluence of social, technological, economical, environmental, political and industry trends 5 or more years out. We can then immerse ourselves and customers in these scenarios, and together, ideate new product ideas. Often we will ask customers in focus groups and during ethnographic to tell us how they would ideally like to do something such as listen to music while in this future. It is through this process that ideas such as iPods can happen.

    Granted this is not the only way, but is is a systematic approach to innovation that works more consistently than waiting for a visionary to drop and idea on the table. 

  • Stiven Kerestegian

    If you were to ask any user before the year 2000 (when their reference was a portable CD player or equivalent) if they had a need to carry their complete music library with them and have access to every song ever recorded in their portable devise, it would have been very difficult to find a person that actually agreed that that was a need for them.

    Today anything else is just unacceptable... from that perspective I agree with the article. Focus groups are useful for many things but maybe not as good for finding out what users actually need or want in the future...

  • lumb3rZack

    We've been outsourcing innovation (on many levels) so long that companies have essentially grown fat.  People have doubled down on internal process efficiency to the point that there is no tolerance for anything outside of the CFO type's comfort zone.  As a result we are seeing the bulk of real innovation come from both start-ups and outside consulting/ad agencies.  These types of industries are engineering their businesses from the ground up, outsourcing the same admin garbage that bogs down fortune 500 companies and focusing exclusively on innovation in-house.

    Outsource your accountants, your HR, get rid of administrative burden, outsource what's cheap and develop internally the true soul of your business. #bizaLaCarte #kickrocks

  • Ed Kishinevsky

    Innovation is difficult for an organization, because it's new. Organizations are interested in security. That's cultural. That's not the consumer's fault.  
    Today - if you look around, consumers are the engines of innovation.  If Reebok listened to consumer about the pump, maybe they'd be around as a credible sports performance company.  They're not.  Short term gain beat long term strategy, and killed the company.

  • Ed Kishinevsky

    I disagree with the note about focus groups, and while I appreciate the ideas presented, the Reebok Pump was a dramatic gimmick in addition to a complete product flop - what athletes may call a joke.  A great promotion for a company, but irrelevant in terms of performance for the athlete.  Promotional innovation, bully!!  

    There was a reason the shoe company and the team laughed originally - they live the game.   
    Innovation is incremental as a human trait and real, big inventions are much serious than packaging design.I agree with the other commenters about research. If you know what you're doing, you will learn from people.  It's the organizations that are slow to move - not the people.

  • Mark Capper

    This argument against focus groups is equivalent to saying
    tennis racquets are bad. Every time I go to the golf course I cannot hit the
    golf ball well with my tennis racquet. It does not work well for hockey or for
    baseball either. And even when I play tennis I cannot play as well as Roger
    Federer. There are a lot of tools in the research tool shed and each has its
    purpose. Not only are focus groups frequently misapplied (like taking a tennis
    racquet to the golf course), some researchers are better than others at
    conducting focus groups and knowing when it is the right tool.

  • Mark Capper

    For many who are not steeped in the practices of consumer
    insight, it always seems that the focus group comes under attack for killing,
    or potentially killing great products when actually the problems are much
    deeper. In my role as a brand and product strategist for over 20 years, I incessantly
    ponder the issues Gianfranco raises. In my field, I conduct a wide variety of
    research on a regular basis. I also have the opportunity to see excellent
    research conducted by highly skilled researchers, but have seen terrible
    research as well conducted by those who do not deeply understand their
    profession.

     

    A major problem is that research, whether it is focus
    groups, one on one interviews. observational research, ethnography or survey
    research, is often conducted by researchers who do not fundamentally understand
    how the mind of the consumer functions. Because consumer emotions and a large
    part of consumer decision making occurs beneath the level of consciousness,
    research must be designed to avoid forcing consumers to consciously create
    responses that do not align with their true emotion, identity or behavior. This
    problem often leads to erroneous results. Visual stimuli is largely processed
    in the unconscious mind yet researchers ask consumers to respond to design
    stimuli as through they are expert design critics. To avoid these problems,
    organizations should work with skilled researchers who understand how the mind
    functions, and can design research that will provide real results.

     

    If conducted properly, research can yield great value
    throughout the development process, but the type of research we conduct at the
    start of the project is very different than research conducted at the end of
    the process. Early in the process we are seeking unmet needs and opportunities
    for innovation. This “discovery” research is much more focused on observation,
    often seeking gaps between real world behavior, product performance and consumer
    emotions compared to what consumers seek as their ideal.

     

    In early evaluation phases we are seeking the consumer’s
    interpretation of what they are seeing in new product concepts. Do they see
    what they designer intended? Do they see the idea getting them closer to their
    ideal? As in the Reebok example, sometime these ideas need to be prototyped to
    get the true impression. This research provides the designer the input to
    refine their concepts and discard concepts that are just not working.

     

    Finally, at the end of the development process we often need
    to ask consumers if they are interested in trying and buying the product, and
    at what price. This is best done once we know that we have the concept refined
    and honed to perfection.

     

    When finally have the design refined, we often need to
    conduct the ”will you buy” evaluations. Some product concepts fail at this
    point because culture is not yet ready for them. I worked for Herman Miller for
    several years. The true story behind the Aeron Chair is that upon release,  it did not sell well for several years. It
    was beyond what culture could accept at the time. Herman Miller has the
    patience to wait to see if a product will catch on in time. Big box retailers,
    on the other hand cannot afford to have product on the shelves that does not
    sell for several years. They need the research to provide them confidence that
    if the product is placed on the shelf, it will sell. If not, there are
    thousands of other products they can place in that planogram that will generate
    revenue today.

    Mark Capper
    President
    Kompas Strategy

  • Aleks Blumentals

    Well put "Because consumer emotions and a large part of consumer decision making occurs beneath the level of consciousness, research must be designed to avoid forcing consumers to consciously create responses that do not align with their true emotion, identity or behavior."

    Doesn't this also mean that aligning to / providing a channel for consumers' deeper drivers of behavior and values' sets is as important or even more so than the product itself?

    From this perspective the focus group or ethnographic research around a topic or product are really about constructing a symbol that can embody this deeper meaning.

    In this sense you are quite right to say it is not the bow but the archer who makes the difference.

  • Kaylor Hildenbrand

    Hi Mark - Well said!  As a qualitative researcher who has conducted hundreds maybe thousands of groups over 17 years, it gets old hearing focus groups bashed when they have a legitimate role in consumer research provided, as you noted, they are the right tool at the time, they are conducted by a skilled researcher, etc.  To me, a focus group is a conversation, and lots can be learned through conversation.

    I like other points the article made in terms of getting products into the field, in the consumers' context, etc.  Going beyond the obvious is key and a focus groups is not necessarily where you will get that.  Focus groups are not meant for driving innovation.  I see them as an important tool in the way we as qualitative researchers ASK, EXPLORE and UNDERSTAND.

    Kaylor Hildenbrand
    Principal Consultant
    PARK Research Partners

  • The Mouse

    I am a newbie industrial designer, so I will just chime in what little I know so far about focus groups: I am sure they are necessary and so is design research and ethnography.... all that important stuff, but I believe its true that not all consumers KNOW what they need and what they are missing. Here is the perfect example from Alex Lee of Oxo brand: When they asked those who use measuring cups in the kitchen, when asked what bothers them or what can be improved upon in their design, they all gave answers like "its sometimes slippery", "handle gets hot with hot liquids in it" but NONE actually complained about having to bend down to look when measuring liquids and pour out and bend down again and pour out some more...
    People didn't see the problem, until Oxo presented them with the solution: The Oxo Angled Measuring cup: http://www.oxo.com/p-504-angle...  http://vimeo.com/3200945#at=0

  • Mark Capper

    Christopher,

    Had the ethnographers conducting the research been specialists in design research they would have easily noticed the difficulty in seeing the measurements on the cup. You could only gather this insight through an empathetic understanding that would come from ethnography or empathetic discovery. This insight is not as likely to come from focus groups. However, once the insight is discovered, and a design is created any consumer in a focus group would likely relate.  

  • Richard

    The problem is not the focus group or the focus group approach. The final analysis of the focus group feedback is handled by middle management. The real problem is how organizations create and perpetuate ineffective incentives for middle managers. The product manager at Reebok controlled the decision, not the focus group. An innovative manager would have said "I've never heard of that, we may have an opportunity in the marketplace." Instead, it was "don't mess with my P&L".

    If middle management is financially tied to short term performance and there are disincentives to try and fail, the organization will not move forward. In larger organizations, especially publicly traded organizations, the focus group approach is the scapegoat for conservative management practice. The true cowardice lies at the top, the people who set the middle management incentives do not want to take the time to manage the innovation cycle - they want innovation for free, free of pain, free of failure, free of having to work hard to recover from mistakes. Finally, they want to be free from mentoring managers through the innovation life cycle.

    If you want to make a difference in the workplace, please change the title and the tone - "If your managers are hiding behind focus group analytics, don't expect innovation" Focus groups have a valuable purpose in the product life cycle. The problem is when focus groups are used for additional purposes, like providing cover for managers to do nothing. 

  • Keith Bossey

    I am sick and tired of executives bashing focus groups (and research in general) with the comment, "most people don't know what they need" so innovation can't be the result. In each case above, actual feedback from potential consumers was used to move innovation forward. Focus groups and research are not to blame when innovation doesn't magically fall into your lap. Laziness on the part of executives is to blame. If your idea of a successful research project is to sit in a room and let 8 people hand you a new product, your expectations are a bit skewed. Perhaps you are using the wrong research firm? Perhaps you aren't willing to invest the time and funds to do things well. 

  • Darrel Rhea

    Gianfranco, you are recycling a tired, shallow and naive argument from decades ago. The intelligent use of qualitative research is now a basic competency for designers who are required to develop their user empathy and contextual understanding. Focus groups are just one tool in a vast research toolbox, and you are describing an inappropriate use of them and some obviously inappropriate expectations of what they can deliver.

    Your firm deploys design research in masterful ways, and it has clearly contributed to the many breakthrough products Continuum has developed. You have some impressive talent there. I'd love to see this sophistication in contemporary research be reflected in your future articles. 

  • peter spear

     
    I am happy to see that I am not alone in disagreeing. This argument is a straw man. Let me put it more strongly. This argument is irresponsible. Focus Groups too quickly become a stand in for listening of any kind, which gives businesses permission to dismiss opportunities to understand their audience in ways that build affection and differentiation, drive growth, inspire innovation and impact the bottom line.

    It is also a shame to hear this from a designer. Design has done much for broadening the intersection of culture and commerce by emboldening the argument good qualitative researchers have been making for years: get out of the office and listen to your customer.

    It seems to me that it is designers and startups who suffer the most from this unfortunate misunderstanding of the role and benefits of qualitative research. Which is unfortunate, for this is where the empathy qualitative can bring is most needed. And yet antipathy towards listening is being enshrined as a dominant characteristic of pioneering leadership and ambition and "innovative thinking."

    Take The Lean Startup, for example. I read it, like everyone else. But I stopped. Because on p43 this happened: "In short, our entire strategic analysis of the market was utterly wrong. We figured this out empirically, through experimentation, rather than through focus groups or market research."

    One (yes, one) paragraph later : " Out of desperation, we decided to talk to some potential customers. We brought them into our office and said, "Try this new product."'

    And so it is by encouraging contempt for qualitative research (focus groups) that inviting customers to talk about their product experience is, within the startup culture, decidedly NOT "market research" but instead some new-fangled "empirical" process stumbled upon by desperate invention. And they unknowingly save themselves (from themselves) using tools that were always available to it.

    This basic misunderstanding is largely the fault of qualitative itself- bad practitioners, bad objectives, bad methods, etc. - but it is the responsibility of any business leader to acknowledge the role of empathy in driving their business forward by using the tools of qualitative to their advantage.