[...] Of all of the reasons for unimaginative and uninspiring work, none is more deplorable than the focus group. There is a right and wrong way to conduct a focus group.Read full entry [...]
The Cradle Of Mediocrity
Of all of the reasons for unimaginative and uninspiring work, none is more deplorable than the focus group. There is a right and wrong
way to conduct a focus group.
Some would argue that incompetence, taste, or budget lead to mediocre work, but all of these can be excused.
Incompetence is easily identified and corrected if the individual has the will to improve. Even those with no natural talent can achieve a
high standard through perseverance and dedication.
As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste. This is truly a matter of personal preference and what may seem hideous to
one person is beautiful to another. This is one point that has been argued about far too long. In order to achieve appropriate solutions, simply focus design on the target audience rather than basing it on personal aesthetics.
Budget is another bane. Often times one has to do too much with too little. This, however, is just a reality of life; good designers often shine when faced with this challenge. No, these cannot be considered the cradle of mediocrity.
But the focus group? A novel idea! Unfortunatetly, it has been perverted and twisted into the mallet of cowardice with which to pummel courage and creativity.
Let us for a moment examine what a focus group is in most people’s minds. It is essentially a gathering of individuals which is meant to represent a cross section of the target audience. These individuals are then often gathered into a room and asked to give their opinions on subjects of which, most likely, they know little to nothing about.
This method of market surveying is usually employed when a brand manager or project decision maker needs to cover their, um, assets. All training, education, gut instinct and expertise is thrown out the window, not only on the part of the designer, but chiefly on the part of the brand manager. One has to wonder about the logic of going to school, hiring a professional firm and then handing the final decisions over to a group of unqualified individuals.
Would you go to the doctor, get the diagnostic, begin the procedure and then invite a team of people to tell the doctor how to operate? The very notion borders on absurdity, yet this is the most common method of using the focus group in today’s business culture.
Many focus groups fail due to something called the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect is simply described as “…the alteration of
behaviour by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed.” The term was first used in the 1960s and comes from Hawthorne, the name of one of Western Electric Company’s plants in Chicago, where the phenomenon was first observed in the 1920s.
The premise is really quite simple. When a person is being watched, he or she behaves differently than when they are alone. If one were
to apply this to the focus group, it is simple to see how the resulting data is automatically skewed. Add to this the nature of group dynamics, where you begin to get a natural pack structure and mild mob mentality. All of a sudden, you end up with something that can hardly be seen as a precise diagnostic tool.
So why do so many business leaders rely on focus groups?
Because they are a sure fire way to protect a decision; and chiefly because on the surface they appear to work. When a branding or design
firm puts forth a set of three solutions, all are usually good but only one is the most appropriate. So it stands to argue that no matter which solution is chosen, there is a good chance for success.
Despite the fact that the solution is not the most innovative or the most appropriate is not taken into consideration because the others will never be tested beyond the focus group. When a decision fails to deliver, the person in charge just shrugs their shoulders and points to the fact that the focus group indicated it would work. Talk about a great scapegoat.
There are many ways to gauge human opinion and behaviour. User interaction can be monitored for web interface design. Trial products can be tested outside a focus group environment. Human behaviour can be observed individually or in groups rather than surveyed. The myriad is truly endless, however with the exception of some of the leading corporations in brand management, these techniques can hardly be considered commonplace.
The next time the opportunity comes around to conduct a focus group, stop. Pick up some books on psychology and group behaviour, cross reference them with your marketing and design books. See it as an opportunity for creativity. The chance to go beyond the usual. The rewards will be great indeed.