Product Design By Focus Groups = Bad Idea

14 Feb

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

Windows tablet vs. iPad
Bill Gates advocated the use of tablets for many years. Microsoft developed one, but it never succeeded in the market. Why? Because Bill Gates was convinced that it should run all Windows applications and should have pen input. But most people spend a lot of time consuming content, such as reading emails, blogs, and news sites, and surfing the Internet. For them, running a copy of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is not necessary, neither is writing on screen with a pen. If Apple had asked people, they would never have articulated the need for something like the iPad. But observing and understanding people’s behavior made the iPad possible and hugely popular.

The point is: Do people know what they want? And will they tell you what they want when you ask them? The answer is both yes and no. Sometimes, when people are aware of the problems they are facing, they can articulate exactly what they need to address their problem.

However, most of the time, when faced with a problem for which no satisfactory solution is available, we find a workaround to that problem. And then that workaround gets so entwined with our lives that it becomes a habit. When it becomes a habit, we no longer view it as a problem. When someone asks us questions, we can’t express the problems because we are not aware of those problems. This is the primary reason focus groups don’t work as well as expected.

Other reasons include:
– People do not understand what is being asked of them.
– They do not immediately know the answer to questions (but might think of better answers later).
– They are not comfortable speaking up in a group setting.
– The most vocal participants take over the meeting.
– The focus shifts to building consensus.
– They do not want to say something contrary to the group opinion.

When focus groups work
Focus groupsĀ  do work in certain situations – when there is a product or feature to be shown or an idea to be discussed. People, when they see a product, can tell what they like or don’t like, and what changes they would like to make in that product. However, even this approach is not always foolproof. The first looks of a product can elicit initial reactions but not well thought out explanations.

Focus groups also help in understanding people’s preferences, desires, and problems of which they are aware. Professors know very well that most of their students do not read the books before coming to the class. They also know that students prefer to spend a lot of time on social activities, online as well as offline. Based on these problems, one possible solution is to make the students take a quiz, for grade, before coming to the lecture. But this “force them to do it” approach generates compliance, not engagement. It forces the students to take the test, but doesn’t help them learn. An ethnographic study might reveal that students do read books, but do not fully understand the concepts because they are too hard. Or that students do not want to read a boring 30-page chapter but would read small chunks or do an engaging activity on their mobile devices.

What designers/innovators say
Two of the most innovative companies I know are Apple and IDEO. Everybody knows Apple. IDEO is the world’s largest design firm with headquarters in Palo Alto. Apple and IDEO have worked together on many products, including Apple’s first mouse. IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown and General Manager, Tom Kelley, both have written books on design and innovation. And both recommend an observation-based approach to understanding the users’ problems. A diverse team, collaboration and brainstorming, prototyping, and testing/evaluation are some of the other recommendations in their books.

I have never seen a focus group leading to an improvement in a product’s design. However, observation or ethnographic research doesn’t always lead to innovative solutions. Why? Because of our own biases, the altering of the users’ behavior when they are being observed, a failure to understand the behavior, difficulty of conducting such research on a large scale, and a failure to come up with compelling solutions people need or would want to have. As Paul Graham says – “Make something people want”.

Product design is difficult on many levels. Is design thinking the answer to product design in an organization?

Suggested readings


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