On Anxiety
Post Of The Month - August 2011 - Nominations

Have Focus Groups Had Their Day?

Focus group

"They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products." Jonathan Ive

I'll admit to having never really been fond of focus groups. For quite some time I've been troubled by the question of whether they yield quite the value that companies seem to invest in them. Or rather, I should perhaps more accurately say troubled by the question of whether the way in which focus groups are used justifies that value. Which is a different, but no less significant question.

It seems I'm not the only one. Last year Behavioural Economist and author Dan Ariely elucidated against the way in which they often seem to be used, noting what a strange idea it is that: "we take 10 people who know basically nothing about your project and you put them in the room and you let them talk for a while and then you take...whatever they came up with, as a consequence of these two hours of random thinking and you base your strategy on it, to a large degree". His point, is that too often businesses rely on small 'focus groups' to answer the really big questions.

This, I should say, I have witnessed. His suggested reason for it has a distinct ring of plausibility about it: that focus groups are extremely good at giving business folk and marketers nuggets around which they might construct believable stories. Saying “Joe, focus group 17, said this,” creates a story that is a lot more human, more filled with relatable desire, one that is more exciting than one that begins "87% of the people said X". The focus group is, therefore, "incredibly useful as a persuasive attempt to tell people what to do, but as a way to find out information, it’s not as useful as people think it is."

Similarly, Douglas Rushkoff has argued that focus groups frequently cause more difficulties than they are meant to solve, with data often cherry picked (to support a pre-formulated hypothesis) from participants who are eager to say the right thing.

The cynical part of me also questions whether the way in which we subconsciuosly shape our behaviour and account for it plays an under-recognised role in the outcome. Ariely says that whilst we are very good at explaining our behaviour, that explanation is often a carefully packaged story that has little to do with the real causes of our behaviours. Instead, our actions are often guided by the inner, primitive parts of our brains that we can't consciously access. If, for example, we are predisposed to copy others, and this is one of the inherent but often unacknowledged characteristics that influences our behaviour, do we really account for that in the way that we should?

There is (perhaps) an interesting parallel to draw here between focus groups and that other situation where people are confined to a windowless room in a relatively unnatural environment with other people and a plate of biscuits - the brainstorm. Some studies have suggested that brainstorming sessions involving groups of people might actually generate a narrower focus than if those people brainstormed individually because of a "collaborative fixation" on particular ideas due to the fact that we mirror ideas in meetings, until we all become fixated on the same thing. If this can happen in a brainstorm, might focus groups be (however subconsciously and inconspicuously) victim of the same problem?

Sure, I recognise that used in the right way, as part of the right process (and probably alongside other methodologies), focus groups may have value. And there are many (no doubt highly skilled) moderators who's job it is to avoid bias and extract real insight. But too often I think, focus groups end up (however subconsciously and inconspicuously) being used in a prophetic way to set a strategic direction as part of a process of innovation or product development and so, as Tom Fishburn puts it, afford "staggering authority to eight strangers gathered on the other side of a one-way mirror". 

Consider how feasible it is that a focus group might be used to justify a certain course of action in a product development cycle that has implications far beyond the product itself (as many product iterations do). The problem, is that groups are singularly ill-equipped to originate stand-out ideas. A focus group will understand new ideas and products within the context of their past experience. Lord knows it's pretty difficult for any of us to understand how we might react to something in the future, how we might realise when something is a breakthrough idea when it has little reference to our understanding of the world right now. I wouldn't be the first to question whether the greatest ideas in advertising, the really standout product ideas, would have happened if the companies involved had listened to focus groups. I somehow doubt it. And the trouble with incrementalism is that that way lies the looming death spiral of mediocrity. 

At the last Google Firestarters event, Tom Hulme from IDEO talked about the importance in Design Thinking of actual experience and observation in developing understanding and empathy, and the hazards of introducing ideas out of context (in a focus group for example). Designers at IDEO believe in the value of real, personal customer experience - in immersing themselves in the world of their client's customer.

When I was working at a large magazine company, there was a time when the Editors of a few different women's magazines went to live with some of their readers for a week. They stayed in their houses, ate dinner and watched telly with the family. They went out on a girls night out with the Mum and her friends, and at the weekend with her to the supermarket to do the weekly shop. Out of all the focus groups, Quant research, and reader surveys that were being done at the time, I suspect that this was likely the single most instructive thing those Editors had done to better understand their readers.

As more products and services become digitised, the opportunities for direct interaction and feedback from loyal and new customers alike are mushrooming, so whilst all of these things have to be used judiciously of-course, it strikes me that we're not short of interesting alternatives. I'm no trained researcher so this is a lay man's view. But I think it's an important question to consider. So, have focus groups had their day? Are they good or bad? Useful or useless? I'm intrigued to know what you might think.

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