How To Use Focus Groups

Focus groups are used in all kinds of industries, from med devices to consumer products to pharma to software. In case you are planning to do any of them, here’s some counsel in what to look for – and what to look out for.

As the name would imply, Focus Group moderators recruit 8-12 people and put them in a room behind a one-way mirror where various topics are presented for discussion – while you watch! It could be doctors being asked about a new medical device, consumers being asked to evaluate advertising ideas or IT managers being asked to provide inputt on a new software feature.

When used properly, these groups can be a good way to hear how customers describe their problems, get product improvement ideas and to learn if people really understand what you are talking about. (Most of the time, they really don’t.) A great use of focus groups is to help you frame the right questions to ask in follow-up quantitative research. Participants will rarely give you “the answer,” but they can provide insights that can help you understand an unmet need and a good way to address it.

But they won’t solve all your problems and they are frequently misused. Legendary car designer Hal Sperlich (who led development both the Ford Mustang and Chrysler Minivan) put it this way:

“Not one person [in Focus Groups] ever talked about wanting a minivan. But lots of them did talk about their dislike for driving monster full-sized vans, or having kids bring mud from soccer games into their family car. Obviously, this led to a van built on a car chassis, instead of a truck chassis, sliding doors on both sides, and of course lots of cup holders!”

Another risk: Beware the “focus group effect.” This is the dynamic of a few noisy people in the room overly influencing all the others. The strongest contributors may not be the loudest talkers.

P&G has impressed this on its people for decades: A Focus Group is not research. Focus Groups should never be used to make business or creative decisions. The reason? Whatever group of people you talk to will be non-representative of your market place. That group of ten buyers, distributors or customers is not a “projectable base.” And no matter what anyone tells you, taking the advice of people you don’t know on a decision only you can make is pure folly.

The good news is that these days, there’s practically always an online service which can get you objective, decision quality data; both cheap and fast. We know an expert on this in Cincinnati, Jeff Goldstein, at AcuPoll (www.acupoll.com). For a few thousand bucks, you can get an enormous amount of fact-based data on almost any research question.