A focus group is defined as a group of individuals tasked with providing feedback to a company on a new product, feature or concept. These groups are generally utilized during the design and testing phases of a project in order to gain (theoretically) unbiased insight into what the project has accomplished so far. Sometimes focus groups consist of existing customers, and sometimes they don’t. This concept has been around since the 1950s, but became popular again in the 1980s and remained very prevalent throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. The reliance on these groups waned a bit during the dot-com era, but they are still used by many companies today.

The focus group seems like a great concept, right? Gather some customers or potential customers in a room, show them what you are planning to do and have them tell you if they like it or not. It seems like this should be a foolproof way of gaining reliable, decision-worthy feedback. But, even though it sounds like a sensible way to get useful input, this isn’t always the case.

If you are considering using a focus group, it’s important to understand some of the setbacks that can occur within this type of framework. Arguably the most impactful challenge is that participants are commonly influenced by other members of the group. Scientists call this behavior social desirability bias or groupthink. The member’s wish to fit in with the others in the group, be viewed in a positive light by their peers and maintain harmony can sway the overall consensus. Where the setting should reveal honest answers, conformity often take their place. The way these individuals act in a group doesn’t always align with what they would do in real life, which can ultimately mean inaccurate data and, subsequently, faulty decisions.

However, even with this and other known problems with focus groups, some companies continue to use them. If you’re one of these companies, you might want to press pause on these initiatives. Beyond the issues above, there are many additional reasons why focus groups are not your best bet for your desired end goal. And more importantly, there are better alternatives worth pursuing instead. Here are two of the reasons why you don’t need a focus group.


Why ask people what they think they’ll do, when you can test on live users?

  • Release a Minimally Viable Product (MVP): The concept of a minimally viable product (MVP) was developed by Eric Ries as part of his quest to help startups to be more successful. It has now become part of the vernacular for technology companies. The idea is to engage real customers using a “version one” of your product or service. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but the core functionality should be operative. By having people use a tangible product, real-world, clear feedback is within reach. You can then adjust from there or scrap the whole thing, based on your findings.

Even though the concept of an MVP was initially designed for technology companies, it can be applied to any type of company. The more you can engage real customers and have them use the product as they would in actuality, the better the feedback you will receive.

  • A/B test: Another live-use method of gathering data is the A/B test. An example of an A/B test is showing one version of your home page to half your website visitors and showing another version to the other half. From there, you can measure results and glean which page performed better (i.e. resulted in more purchases, white paper downloads, service sign-ups, etc). There are simple tools available that make A/B tests simple to execute. Two examples are Optimizely and Visual Website Optimizer. You can also use A/B testing to measure price elasticity of demand when trying to determine the right price for your offering.
  • Use social media as your focus group: If you are looking for feedback on your product or service, look no further than social media. All the information you need is coming at you every day through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites in the form of user cheers, jeers, and general musings. Plus, user feedback on Yelp, Google, and other review sites can give you invaluable information. You no longer need to try to gather people together and ask them what they think. They’ll do it on their own. And, boy do they like to tell you how they feel.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to depend on asking people what they think they would do. Instead, you have the power to actually observe what they do in real time.

People don’t want innovation, so don’t ask for their opinion on it

Having run a software company for many years, I’ve become pretty adept at predicting what customers will not ask for. For instance, they won’t ask you for something disruptive or game changing. And you can’t really blame them. After all, they’re just trying to get their jobs done the best way they can. Fixing a bug or adding another feature fits the bill, but giving them a new interface or worse yet, completely changing the way their industry operates, does not.

In the book Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen cites this as the main reason smaller companies can compete with larger ones. He explains that established companies often become slaves to their existing customers, dutifully spending all their time giving them exactly what they are asking for. Meanwhile, a startup can come along and introduce an entirely new concept to the industry with no fear of upsetting an existing customer base (and revenue stream).

In addition to Christensen’s point, it makes even less sense to employ focus groups if you are introducing something no one is asking for. A good example is the iPad. People weren’t clamoring for a tablet computer. And if you assembled people together and polled them about whether or not they would use such a thing, the most likely response would have been, “For what? My laptop works just fine.” Well, over 200 million iPads have been sold to date and sales are not slowing down – in fact, Apple sold more iPads in Q1 of 2014 than in any prior quarter.

Even though an oft-quoted sentiment for the general populace is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” this way of thinking spells certain death for businesses. In order to remain healthy, businesses must innovate. And when being truly innovative, it’s almost always futile to make your most important decisions by asking a group of people how they feel about it.

So for all you hard-core focus groupies, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s high time to modernize your approach to gathering feedback for a new product or service. Bye-bye to the focus group. You had a good run, but we’ve (thankfully) moved on.