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Innovation Engine

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.

Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation, From The Designer Behind Swiffer

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]