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Monday, November 28, 2005

The Secret No One Knows To Why Focus Groups Don't Work

In Roy H. Williams regular Monday Morning Memo from The Wizard of Ads he notes:

Conduct a survey. Ask the public to describe in detail the kind of place they'd like to shop. Then build that place, exactly as described, and see if they ever show up. Experience tells
us they won't.

This is borne out by almost any business. Look at the computer, or IT industry, how often does the finished IT system look as the original users asked? I remember asking a very experienced and knowledgeable user if he thought the requirements and the draft design we were presenting to him and his user team was what they expected and wanted. His answer was, "we won't know until it's been delivered".

That's why I think Focus groups can be so dangerous. Because the group can tell researchers what they thin they want to hear. And most basic of all: people's behaviour changes when it's being observed. This has been shown in a number of scientific studies.

In a series of research studies funded by the Western Electric Company at its Hawthorne plant in Chicago from 1924 to 1932 researchers looked at how worker productivity was influenced by the workplace lighting, among other things. They found that despite poorer and poorer conditions worker productivity steadily increased. This became known as the "Hawthorne Effect".

This effect is better defined as "the tendency, when observed, for worker productivity to steadily increase, even when working conditions are made more and more difficult".

Although this relates specifically to the workplace it's a small step further to see that placing someone in a group so they are observed will affect how they behave. And the behaviour may not be how they act outside of the focus group.

Does that mean focus groups are a waste of time?

Well, as I say I'm not a fan, but look at other psychological principles in play in Focus Groups too.

For example "Risky Shift", which basically means that any decision made by a group can be much, much more risky than one an individual in the same group would have made.

That means agreement could be reached within the focus group that many of them are unsure of. But because the "risk" of being unsure is shared out it's not as worrying as if only one person was unsure. So the focus group presents a result that you shouldn't bet your business on!

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