You've likely heard about a new service Google has launched called Latitude, that can enable you and your pals to track each other geographically via your mobile phones. There's a bit of controversy about the potential abuse of the service for stalking, but that's not what I want to talk about. At least not directly. I tested this concept a couple of years ago in research. Let me tell you about it.
About two years ago, I was planning a session with some grad students in a research program. You know the drill -- guest instructors who are practitioners come in and show their stuff. So I did an advance study with the group using an online bulletin board method. Then we talked about it in the class.
To try to find a topic of interest to all the students of various ages, I picked cell phones. Among other things, I cooked up a number of possible features and enhanced services that we concept tested. One of them I called "Friend Finder", which was essentially a product like Latitude.
I thought this Friend Finder concept was pretty clever, actually, and that if I tested such a product concept with a broad base of young adults, that it would likely be well received. I was really surprised when this group of research students reacted pretty badly to the idea, and were REALLY worried about privacy. Freaked-out and creeped-out about privacy, actually.
They also didn't like "Taxi Finder", something I personally would love. And they didn't like "Bus Finder". I don't think there was one concept that tested well.
So I pondered this finding ... and here's what I think.
This was not an average slice of humanity in any respect. Most of these people were into quantitative i.e. they enjoy statistics. A number of them had just finished a four-year degree and were running out of money. Several were mid-life career changers who were also pretty cautious about their spending. And they were in a small city on the edge of the Canadian Shield (lots of big rocks) and they told me cell coverage was often spotty. [Who knew? When I go up there to canoe, I'm pretty much ignoring my cell phone.]
And it was not a well targeted slice either. A number of the students turned out not to have a cell phone at all, or used it very sparingly. In a real study, the client most likely would have been looking to gain insights into only those people who were already pretty keen on their cell phones and were already using some advanced features.
My colleague that day, Tania Heintzman, was personally VERY keen on Taxi Finder. But she uses taxis a lot and students don't. Off target.
I personally was very keen on Bus Finder, but the bus service in small cities is often terrible and so irrelevant to this group who all drove to campus. Off target again.
Basically, researching any number of the wrong people does not help. A bigger sample of the wrong people does not help. Statistical significance would not get you out of this issue either. The wrong sample is the wrong sample.
Sometimes only a few of the exactly right people can help you dive very very deep into powerful insight. So you really need to figure out who those right people are. Especially when you are trying to see into the future with new concepts for products.
If something like this happened in a real project, it would be a mistake to conclude that the concepts had no potential market. Because clearly, Latitude will find users. And all sorts of people are developing open-source products like my "Bus Finder" idea, even here in the frozen wastelands of Toronto. Soon it will be available via smart phone apps.
On the other hand, some of the learning would have been valid. For example, the concern about privacy. That's an attitudinal and behavioral segment that you would want to understand. Even knowing about this issue would help you design a better service, and avoid the criticisms Google is getting now.