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.

4 thoughts on “Look beyond focus groups

  1. Jeff,

    I could not agree with you more…
    But I have the feeling that there is one thing not said in your article. And that thing seems banned from marketing these days because it is hard to measure. This thing is called instinct.
    If you want to be a good product manager, you need an instict for innovation by nature!
    And this is hard. You either have talent or no talent to be a good product manager.

    The focus groups you are raging about are in my opinion used by product managers without talent.

    I do like to know how you think about the ‘old school’ talent fact0r of a product manager. This talent provides a PM the ability to look through the complains and questions of customers, the ability to understand developments in the market and technology etc.

    When looking at sales people the majority of the world is convinced that you are one by nature. I believe that this is equality true for the product manager function.
    So my bottom line would be: “if you want to be a good product manager, make sure you are born like it”

    Kind regards,

    Emile Bakker
    the Netherlands

  2. Great comment, Emile.

    I think that some product managers are “born like it,” but for most of us, it can be learned.

    When hiring for positions, there is this idea of traits and competencies.

    Competencies are areas that can be learned through experience and training. Technical skills are often competencies; you may hire a good programmer who knows ASP but not PHP, but if they are a good programmer they can probably learn PHP.

    Traits are innate qualities that some people have and some people don’t. These are harder (if not impossible) to teach but those who possess those traits improve and enhance them through experience. “Attention to detail” is a good example. Some people are detail-oriented by nature, and some aren’t; it is very difficult to teach this trait to someone who isn’t.

    There are some “traits” of good product managers, as you identified — curiosity about customers and the market, ability to take advice, and leadership are the ones that come to mind off the top of my head. (More will likely show up here on the blog in due time.)

    Many aspects of being good at product management are really “competencies” that can be learned and improved upon.

    The trick in being a good product manager (or someone hiring and managing product managers) is to know what the right traits are and hire for those, and know what the competencies are and train for those. Often people are put into product management because they excel at certain competencies but struggle because they do not lack the fundamental traits needed.

  3. Thanks for the useful citations, Jeff.

    As an anthropologist with one foot in the product design world, I’ve found that just listening to, watching, or participating with consumers is a huge help. But it is not enough. Some creative spark, some insight beyond the daily lives of customers and consumers, is always needed to create breakthrough products and services. The research is one thing but taking it forward to new places where consumers—and product managers—have not yet set foot is something else entirely.

    Its more perspiration than inspiration, and a lot depends on having a wide enough point-of-view, but there is no denying that a spark of something beyond the data is needed to make things happen with new products.

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