Look beyond focus groups

If you want to be a bad product manager, use focus groups for all of your market research. The focus group is a time-tested tool, used by thousands of companies around the world. It’s relatively easy to set up and facilitate, and pretty much everyone knows how they work. They are very efficient as well; rather than taking a long period of time to speak with individual interviews, in an hour or so you can talk with a whole bunch of customers. Whether you’re making decisions on product naming, marketing strategy, features and functionality, color or design, focus groups are a great way to give you the answers you need.

If you want to be a good product manager, investigate methods other than focus groups to meet your research needs. Too often, doing “some groups” is the default and only answer to questions of market research. While they have their place, focus groups are too often overused and misused.

In How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, Gerald Zaltman gives focus groups a thorough thrashing, much of it deserved. He essentially argues there is never an instance where focus groups should be used, which may be going a bit over the line. With the right purpose, moderator, and setup, focus groups can be useful tools, but they are not the only tools in the toolbox.

The McKinsey Quarterly recently published a great article on Reinventing innovation at consumer goods companies (registration required; article is free through January 20, 2007), where authors Erik A. Roth and Kevin D. Sneader investigated why consumer goods companies have fallen behind with real breakthrough innovation. One of the four “harmful orthodoxies” they identified was the “conventional wisdom” that “Focus groups are at the heart of efforts to generate the insights companies need.”

So many companies use the same tool kit to scrutinize consumers that the resulting insights are undifferentiated. What’s more, conventional research methods often gather incomplete information. Because they rarely make it possible to experience the full benefits of new or hypothetical products, they often fail to predict accurately whether consumers will understand the technologies that underpin truly innovative products. Consumers are notoriously poor at articulating needs or benefits beyond those they have already experienced: when asking them to imagine true innovations, companies get mixed results at best. … In short, traditional methods can describe past consumer behavior but rarely uncover the white-space opportunities between existing product categories or the kinds of insights that lead to breakthrough innovations.

Product managers looking for insight to leapfrog their competition should utilize the whole range of research methods at their disposal, including “ethnographic or anthropological research approaches such as in-context interviewing and ‘living with consumers’ … computer simulations, mock stores, model “homes of tomorrow,” and more.”

Developing breakthrough products requires identifying unmet and unarticulated needs which may not be possible in a climate-controlled conference room with 7 chairs, a round table, and a one-way mirror.