Do Focus Group Kill Innovation?

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It’s the familiar plaintive cry of the innovator. Focus groups kill innovation. Gianfranco Zaccai, designer of the Swiffer mop, and co-founder and president of the global design and innovation consultancy Continuum has attacked the meal ticket of market research agencies.

No innovation, in Zaccai’s considerable 40 years experience, has ever come out of a focus group. Would you outsource brain surgery to untrained consumers? No? Then don’t outsource your innovation. Just Don’t.

Research groups reward prejudices and the familiar, and reinforce myopic client conservatism in an artificial environment that bares no resemblance to real life. Good ideas get punished, killed or watered down to wallpaper, whilst the generic and faddish get rewarded. Or so the argument goes.

The problem is that Zaccai is attacking a straw man. Sure there are some innovation consultancies out there that misuse consumer groups for polling and screening innovation ideas. But any agency worth commissioning will know that this is a pointless misapplication of the focus group, and belies a pitiful ignorance of qualitative research. Focus groups are not for mini-polling. Focus groups generate the understanding that acts as creative stimulus for people who understand innovation and understand consumer behaviour.

The output of a focus group is input into the creative and analytical process, not an output. In other words, focus groups don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about. So, if you are simply taking at face value what consumers say in a focus group, you are missing the point. Likewise, if you are listening to consumers’ explanation for why they think or do things; an exercise based on the myth that people have some privileged understanding of their motivations. That’s not what focus groups are for. Consumers have genuine expertise… as consumers. It is in their capacity to stimulate innovation and improvement of ideas in experts and trained professionals that their value lies.

Gianfranco Zaccai, you do not need to worry.


Paul Marsden

All stories by: Paul Marsden
  • Taylor Lies

    Good response. To add on, focus groups aren’t a method – they’re a dynamic (multiple people) and a setting (typically bland, out of context room). But you can do a wide range of activities with a group – generative to evaluative. And sometimes you can even do groups in context. Overall, it’s useful for researchers to have a broad, flexible set of tools (and knowing the pros/cons) that allow them to tackle any question and any constraints. Out-of-context groups might not be ideal, but they can be useful in certain circumstances.

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