Truly innovative product design does not come from focus groups, but it can be killed by one. I am sure there are dozens of focus groups going on right now as I write and the product designer or furniture designer is sitting back cringing at the comments (if they even allow him to watch). Typically focus groups results usually go like this…

1) Research shows that 92% will not pay more for any of the (competitively differentiating or beautifully designed) features.

Do you really need a focus group to tell you that they want a product cheap? Participants in focus groups know they are influencing you, so they will always undervalue a product in hopes that it will help get it at least a little cheaper in the end. So, don’t waste time and money focus-grouping, use the time to value-engineer the product and actually make it cost less.

2) Research shows that more men than women prefer this product 52% to 48%.

This one should be a product killer, but it is usually considered an overwhelming endorsement. EVERY retail product category, except porn, but most definitely including men’s underwear, have women as the dominate buying influence, so if only 48% like it, this product will likely fail because it just misses the mark. Go back to the drawing board and rework.

And if you think I am wrong about men’s underwear, think about it a little harder. Guys (straight guys) – mom, girlfriend or wife probably bought the actual pair you have on, OR turned you onto the brand you continue to buy now, OR you were seeking the girlfriend/wife’s approval as you bought them, hoping they would find them macho or sexy and want to see you out of them.

3) Research shows that 24% of those surveyed prefer the gadget in black, 21% white, 19% blue, 12% green and the rest have no preference.

Guaranteed the product will end up black (or black and white if the company is feeling risky). This could be and is being done without thousands of dollars spent on focus groups. Ask your sales people or your buyers to suggest or pick a color, you can’t get much more mainstream boring than that. Don’t get me started on the lack of colors offered!

Innovative companies do not use focus groups and when they still managed to make an innovative product after using a focus group, they ignored the results and listened to their instincts. If focus groups rule, the Herman Miller® Aeron® chair would have had cushions and the iPod® might not have existed. So how do you find out or validate what a consumer really wants – try ethnographic study instead. More in a future blog about how we, as product designers, do that successfully. But in the meantime, how do you kill the current round of focus groups? Offer to cut them in an effort to help your budget.

About Hazz Design: Graduates of Rhode Island School of Design, Tracy and Tom have been working and designing together for most of their two- decade marriage. Their shared vision that good design should never cost more, that there is always a solution, and that one- plus-one can have an exponential result has earned them career expanding projects, multiple design awards, more than two dozen patents, two children and a finely tuned relationship.
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