Several weeks ago, I wrote a post titled "Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation," which received dozens of spirited comments defending the use of focus groups in product design. Actually, 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.
While it’s unlikely that focus groups can create an innovative idea, they can help evolve one—fine-tuning how it will be embraced and determining the feature set, price point, and physical embodiment of the core idea.
In my view, innovation is really a three-step process, and only in the last one are focus groups truly helpful.
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.
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." For example, when we designed a new lathroscopic hand tool for surgeons, we observed highly skilled surgeons doing surgery, but we also did surgery ourselves, not on people but on dead chickens to see which configurations would work better to perform the kind of interventions we’d observed. This was different than in the first step, when we might have worked with a surgeon to understand how the product fit into their hand, their surgical team, and their day-to-day work flow. By using the focus filter during early concept development, it allows us to "fail faster" in order to get the product to a stage in which we optimize it and take it to market.
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. For the Swiffer, for example, the P&G team asked customers how much they’d pay for the product and how much they’d pay for the detachable cartridges, whether they’d prefer to buy it knocked down in a box or hanging up like a broom, whether they’d like to see it in the detergent aisle or the housewares aisle. The answers to all of those questions helped to position the product more effectively, so that when it did appear in the market, consumers embraced it more readily, making it the global success it eventually became.
As Malcolm Gladwell notes, for innovation, we need to look for the outliers—the game-changing ideas that will truly transform their categories. To create successful products or services, we often look for and learn from the behaviors and aspirations of outliers—but we also need to create innovations that will be embraced by the many. After all, if we create something so revolutionary that only a small fraction of people buy and benefit by it, then we are not doing our job. 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.