Researcher Chris Kann, (pictured left) and I spoke a while back about the reasons that people bash focus groups. The result of that discussion was an article that was published in Greenbook, called Don't Blame the Focus Group.
One of the most frequent negative examples trotted out about focus groups is the Herman Miller Aeron Chair story, a story of a very innovative product that was so foreign to consumers when introduced, that initial reactions were not all that positive. This story is often told as a cautionary tale about research -- it shouldn't be.
"That Herman Miller management chose to go ahead with a launch of the chair despite these findings and generated a massively successful product, is taken to mean the focus group did not do its job.
But perhaps this is a story of a focus group doing its job well, and management doing its job well too. Management knew what initial reactions to the new product would be and could plan accordingly. The history of the Aeron chair on the Herman Miller website in fact makes it clear that extensive consumer research, including focus groups, informed the development of the product."
We think it is pretty ironic that companies are invited to listen to consumers more, but only in certain ways.
I'm pretty sympathetic to the challenges of management in client organizations. So is Chris. The truth is, we've both been on the other side. Managers have to make a lot of tough calls, and they hope the research will help. And it often does help. But no research, regardless of method, can save leaders from the pain of making actual decisions, and some decisions will inevitably be wrong.
Bad research won't help your decisions much. But good research will save your hide over and over -- save you from making expensive mistakes, help you see the potholes in the road to success, and point to new opportunities.
Focus groups are not the be-all and end-all. But there's a reason they have stayed around, and it's because they are a good tool in the hands of a skilled researcher.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Don't blame the focus group for leaders' shortcomings, by Susan Abbott and Chris Shields Kann, Greenbook, 2011.
Company history of the Aeron chair, including video with the designers.