Focus Groups Can Shift Your Focus

You already know that Reality TV has nothing to do with reality. People who know they are being watched (by millions!) act differently. Something analogous can happen in your marketing focus groups.

Focus groups proponents believe they can probe the likes and dislikes of consumers by designing or simulating something in a closed room, and perhaps with invisible viewers behind mirror walls.

You should not look only at success stories of focus groups, but also at disasters thanks to focus groups. These mixed results should highlight the randomness of the outcomes and how really difficult it is to understand what consumers really want.


There is a sea of studies to back each of the following (related) facts:

1. Claims by individuals on how they would react or choose in a given situation are not consistent with their actual actions in real situations (we say something and do something else).

2. Peer pressure plays a key role in choice outcomes. Peer pressures are not the same inside and outside focus groups.

3. The context of the situation (e.g, in a room with other focus group members vs on a couch at home, vs with peer employees at work, etc) is as important as the content of the product or service (e.g., the offerings and benefits of the product or service being tested).

4. People do not always know what they want and why they want it. Think Internet and the World Wide Web.

Example-The Aeron Chair

The Aeron chair is now a “classic” office chair. But not when it was conceived. According to the accounts of Malcolm Gladwell, during its design and development phase in early 1990’s, the chair was considered ugly to the extreme. It was called all sorts of things like “the exoskeleton of a giant prehistoric insect” and the “Chair of Death”.

This is because to make a cutting edge ergonometric chair, the designers had to break away from traditional looks and designs. For instance, the unusual mesh-looking cover which allows the skin to breathe was a serious departure from traditional covered cushions. What is worse, this see-through mesh showed all the uncommon mechanical parts, levers, and bandages of the chair underneath.

Who would want to sit on a chair that ugly?

After series of focus groups and adjustments, the chair was still not aesthetically accepted. The furniture maker Herman Miller decided to go to market, anyway, following his instinct. Initially the market reaction was neutral, until this ugly chair began to feature in films and win awards. Not only it was by far the best seller in the history of Herman Miller Inc, but it is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in the U.S.
Had Herman Miller acted on the results of the focus groups the history of furniture design would be different.

A lesson

The key to remember is that people’s perception of your product or service does not necessarily flow to a logical conclusion. This means structured focus groups are not always going to help you discover what people really want. In some cases, however, you may be able to test the outcomes of focus groups using small scale roll-outs, for instance, However while also relying on your expertise and intuition. In other cases, you may simply have to dive right in to catch some fish!

Related Topics:

  • Testing Testing Testing
  • You Create We Improve