If you want to develop a successful product, one person’s opinion matters more than any other’s. The customer. To develop a product that not only works but also sells, you need a product customers want. 

Focus groups can be one of the most effective ways to tap into the voice of the customer, helping you understand their needs. Or focus groups can be a colossal waste of time, giving you no new information or, worse, sending you down the completely wrong path.

The difference is up to you. To get the most out of your focus group, avoid these four common mistakes.

Mistake #1: Expecting Confirmation Instead of Searching for Inspiration

The number one mistake is expecting participants to tell you exactly what to do. Too many companies use focus groups as a way to cover their asses instead of looking for opportunities. That’s not how focus groups work. You can get information. You can get ideas. You can get enlightenment. What you can’t get is confirmation.

Consider the Chrysler minivan. When it was released in the 1980s, customers loved it. It was exactly what they wanted. But as Hal Sperlich, the chief architect of the project, explained, “No one asked us for a minivan.” 

Instead, customers talked around it. They talked about how traveling with kids in a sedan was miserable and cramped. They talked about how full-size vans were awkward to drive and park. They talked about the difficulty of loading things in and out of a car. Sperlich and his team then took all that information and created the minivan.

In a focus group, people can tell you what they don’t want, but they can’t tell you what they do want, because it doesn’t exist yet. In short, customers don’t know what they don’t know—until you create it for them.

Mistake #2: Relying on Focus Groups Alone

The second mistake is thinking a focus group alone is enough. Focus groups are a qualitative tool. They can provide the initial inspiration and direction, but a focus group is a small sample size. Confirmation is only possible through good, solid quantitative analysis. 

Several decades ago, I was involved in a focus group on steam irons. One woman was adamant about not wanting the cord to wind up into the iron. Because of that one woman’s opinion, the company scrapped the idea. Now here we are forty years later, and guess what: lots of irons come with retractable cords because it turns out many customers want that feature. 

Don’t make the mistake this company did. Five people’s opinions do not make a guarantee. To evaluate a product, you need quantitative studies. Nowadays, with the internet, it’s easier than ever to do large-scale customer surveys. So make sure to do follow-up your focus group with quantitative analysis.

Mistake #3: Blindly Trusting the Customer

The next mistake is taking everything the customer says as fact. After all, the customer is always right! Except when they’re not. Remember: customers don’t know what they don’t know.

Once, I was doing a focus group for folding  walkers. One of the participants really liked his  walker. “It’s great!” he told me.

“Does it need anything?” I asked.

“No, no,” he insisted. “It’s perfect.”

But when I looked at his walker, I discovered that he had duct-taped a cup holder, a phone holder, a book bag, and a flashlight to it. Not so perfect after all!

We call this compensatory behavior, and it is more common than you might expect. People naturally modify the things that don’t work for them into things that do work, without even realizing that the product was inadequate in the first place.

A focus group should be more than just talking. Ask customers to actually use the product, so you can see for yourself. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Listen to what participants tell you, but also pay even more attention to what they show you. 

Mistake #4: Letting the Participants Run the Session

The final mistake is taking a backseat and letting the participants run the session. To be most effective, a focus group needs to be guided.

First, ensure that no single person dominates the focus group. There’s always going to be one or two people who are extra vocal. If you’re not careful, they will take over the discussion. Everybody else will go along because they don’t want to argue, and you’ll lose out on the quieter but still valuable perspectives. Encourage balanced sharing by inviting specific people to speak. 

Second, guide the discussion to be more constructive. Sometimes the discussion is simply “I don’t like X” or “Y is bad.” That’s important information, but too often the discussion stalls there and never evolves. Try asking, “How would you make this better?” and “What do you wish the product could do?”

By thoughtfully leading the focus group, you’ll get more and higher-quality information from the participants.

Better Focus Groups = Better Products

Too many people treat focus groups like something to check off the to-do list as opposed to the valuable tool they are. The bottom line is: the better you get at conducting focus groups, the better products you’ll be able to develop. Focus groups can increase knowledge, and knowledge is always the gateway to successfully developing a better product.

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