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Vision vs Research – What are focus groups good for?

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20 February 2012
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Steve Jobs visionary
Focus groups are excellent tools to get feedback on things your sample group can clearly imagine, they are terrible at dealing with abstract concepts. So says Zoe Tyndall of Britainthinks – a market research firm based in London.

This chimes with my own experience of conducting focus groups for web services, and seeing creative concepts subject to them.

In other words, if somebody put a mobile phone in the hands of the focus group it could be very useful to ask about their impression about how it makes them feel.

If however you came up with a concept for a creative brief, or an application like Twitter, without a working prototype, you won’t get meaningful feedback from a focus group. In fact Twitter is a fantastic example of how nebulous an interactive human driven service – most new digital services – can be: Many users have to try and use them multiple times before they get it. If Twitter’s future had been dependent on the approval of a focus group of people that had not used it, it would have been dead in the water.

In political polling the pollster will always frame the question, “if you could vote tomorrow”, precisely because of the need to focus the mind on an outcome which is imaginable, says Tyndall. If the polls tell you that the public thinks there is no alternative to austerity, that does not mean politicians should take it face value and not seek other solutions. A major policy shift that could be received very well, might just be out of the groups frame of reference in the present.

But – making decisions without these crutches are hard. It requires insight and vision. And courage.

So whether you are a product developer, pitching a creative concept or an activist politician. Remember – focus groups can never replace an informed vision if you want to do something out of the ordinary.

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