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Focus Groups Are Dangerous. Know When To Use Them

Focus groups won’t give rise to innovative ideas, maintains Continuum’s Gianfranco Zaccai. But they can help refine the core concept when used at the right moment in the design process. Here’s how to do it.

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.

Step One: Engage with people in a one-on-one context.

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.

Step Two: Come back to the table to make sense of what is uncovered in step one.

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.

Step Three: Take it 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. 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.

[Images: Doodles and Pen via Shutterstock]

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  • Aleks Blumentals

    There are all kinds of 'focus' groups and as many ways to gather them. White space groups, Delphi, Scenarios, etc are all attempts to structure different types of groups to deal with varying degrees of complexity. But to make any of it work well remains an art more than a method (sufficient procedure.)

    The results often depend on the quality of the question and the attitude of all those involved. Consider for example an entrepreneur group - it is essentially a committed and engaged focus group, with a certain bias and risk profile, where researcher and object are closely intertwined.

    Living the reality of an idea-space is not the same as thinking of it.
    Consider a 'professional' researcher or an employee group on the other hand. These may be most conservative and perhaps not emotionally engaged in the product/customer experience. It makes a heck of an difference when the people involved "truly" care (at a deep emotional level) about the situation.

    There is excellent inspiration for market and design folk in ethnography, but also in psychology, for example the Milan group experiences (, and others. But nothing will make any method a tool, a sufficient method, in this area. Mixing these elements is an art, and too often, we can't know beforehand if anyone in the group will rise to become a true artist.

  • John Walker

    What you are saying is that people are not able to produce something creative while being the part of the group, because of numerous reasons (most of the involve being competitive and ignrorant to others. And i would actually agree with that, if you are talking about some absolute innovation, something competely new and unique, but when it comes to focus groups the stakes aren't usually that high.  The problem with focus  groups is that they usually aim for the local success, which basically means that they are less effective than they could have been.

  • mtowers

    My New Year's wish is not to see any more articles about focus groups being the only form of qualitative research.  No credible researcher just recommmends focus groups for everything and that is not a new development.   Who is claiming that focus groups are the genesis of innovation?   That said the occasionally do generate innovation  in much the same way brainstorming and Ideation does.  What again does Malcolm Gladwell know about research, product design and innovation? 

  • Patrickhealyid


    I think there is a distinction between focus groups and other types of ethnographic research. Engaging with users/customers can take many different forms with a "focus group" being one specific type of engagement.  

    It is definitely helpful to engage users repeatedly throughout the design process, but the design team must be very careful about how they are interacting with users and how they apply the information. In my limited experience, most people cannot effectively evaluate a concept before it is fully realized. Further, they are only able to evaluate concepts based on their needs and perceptions in the present.  We as designers are responsible for creating the future so, we must understand user needs/feedback, then extrapolate what that means for the future.

    The danger of focus groups is that they are often the sole validation for making decisions.  This is the result of individuals for fear taking risks and making the wrong decision   A focus group "absolves" them of this responsibility  

    When focus groups are used in this manner, the results are inevitably banal and predictable.  To be successful as a designer or in business, we must go far beyond what a focus group is capable of selecting.  People "want" what they know.  Designers must create what users want before the user knows they want it.


  • Joe

    Interesting. My feeling is that 'focus groups' or discussions with consumers/potential consumers are useful throughout the process and not just useful towards the latter stages as a validation exercise. Even using semi-formed concepts during step 2 as a method to provoke a discussion can be useful in un-earthing and provoking deeper insight which would have been far more difficult (and costly) if the concept was fuller-formed and left towards the latter stages.

    In my mind, the key is recognising the different sorts of focus groups depending on whereabouts in the process you are. Earlier in the process would mean treating the discussion output more as inspiration, builds and additional insight which I think is just as valuable as conversations around pricing/format further down the line.

  • Danish

    I can't agree with you, Mr Zaccai, when it comes to measuring the success of the designer's work. In your article, you said: "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"
    As designers, our target is part of the scope of the problem we try to solve. Therefore, from a pure economic perspective, it is not the amount of people we reach, but the percentage of people in our target group. Hence, although I agree with your position when it comes to focus groups, if the technique is used, it is critical that the focus group should be a precise representation of our target group. 
    For large target groups or segments, selecting the right people for the user group is really hard, as we humans have many biases and influences, trumping up statistics.

  • Carmen Ringelmann

    I would still agree that focus groups are dangerous. There is a strong tendency to group think, and especially in America, where respondents get paid decent incentives for attending them, there is an annoying occurance of professional focus group respondents who are sometimes not brand / category users at all.  Yes, a good moderator should be able to work their way around these aspects, but the group is still a group.

    Absolutely critical are excellent recruiters and highly skilled moderators.

    I am amazed that the research industry is still so married to the idea of focus groups.

  • mtowers

      I am not sure why focus groups are such a lightening rod for criticism, it is simply one method among many for discussing ideas with potential customers.  I think your points are valid but any experienced researcher accounts for all of the points you have mentioned.  One thing I disagree with "The research industry" is not married to anything.  I do not know a single researcher who uses one methodology.  Instead, they use a varied set of methodologies that best fit the situation.  There are some misuses of focus groups, people who don't know how to moderate and clients who don't know the difference but that is true for any profession. 

    Unfortunately, people without experience in the research industry often do not know what to ask for.  I can't tell you the number of times (even recently) I have met with potential clients who start the conversation by saying they want to do focus groups or a survey without really understand they type of information they are going to receive or all the options they have for doing the research differently.