Gladwell on why focus groups suck

Malcolm Gladwell recently gave the keynote at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Account Planning conference in Chicago. It’s excerpted on Advertising Age ($). If you’ve worked in design or product development (or read “Blink”) you know the drawbacks of focus groups. But what Gladwell does here is describe the solutions as ones of management. Not surprisingly, I agree.

Here’s the ending…

Now think about the Aeron chair. [The focus group participants] say they don’t like the chair, of course they don’t. The chair is nothing they’ve ever seen before, but that was the whole plan in designing the chair. But that’s what’s wonderful about it, that’s why this chair will make billions of dollars for Herman Miller, but it’s also what dooms that chair in the focus group, because people don’t have the language.

Market research, when it is observational or when it is interpretative, is profoundly useful. But those are two critical things. They require the intervention of the person conducting the research. They require the findings that are gathered are considered, and thought about, and processed and interpreted. Back in the 1950s, most of the major advertising agencies on Madison Avenue employed Freudian psychoanalysts for this precise reason, and you don’t see that anymore. I think that’s a big mistake.

This understanding about what’s so terrible about focus groups ought to pave the way that we manage people. First and foremost, it’s very important for management to trust the creative talent.

The second thing is patience. The more breakthrough, the more revolutionary and the more innovative an idea is, the longer it will take for people to come to appreciate it.

The third thing is it requires people in management to tolerate uncertainty. The thing that’s driving all this focus-group and market-research data is the desire of people with the management power to make every decision as methodical and thought out and certain as possible.


  1. As one who has led product development for over 20 years, I can say that your comments on focus groups are absolutely true. The most revolutionary and ultimately most popular products that I developed over the years were the ones that customers didn’t yet know they needed and for which there was no overt market demand. They were also the ones developed in autonomy, where the inventive juices were free to flow, and were based on envisioning solutions that anticipated future needs based on current trends that had not yet become widespread.

  2. I totally agree with Gladwell’s point, though it isnt a new one. I recently read Tom Peter’s Re-Imagine, where Peters sums it up even better:

    “All innovation is NOT driven by Market Research and endless Focus Groups. It is driven by Pissed-Off Customers!”

    As a consultant who makes a pretty decent living from User Research and Usability testing that quote scared me for a time, because a lot of folks in c-level positions at corporations see focus groups and user testing as the same thing.

    It took me a bit to realized that our job is to be the voice for that pissed-off customer. It certainly seems like companies aren’t listening to them. They compain via comment forms, call centers, etc.

    So I now see user research and usability as a way to understand what customers are pissed off about.

  3. I agree.

    The main problem with focus groups in my experience is that it’s a completely artificial situation in which to judge a design or a new product. It very quickly becomes an inter-group powerstruggle – it’s very easy to spot the test-person who takes charge of the group, or how two camps develop; one for and one against.

    As a designer it’s easy to hate focus groups, but I honestly cannot see any benefit apart from reassuring the client to take the safe route – or to turn the conversation into the dreaded: ‘perhaps it is a bit too red’, rather than: ‘is it right or not?’.

  4. “Focus Groups are people who are selected on the basis of their inexplicable free time and their common love of free sandwiches.” — Scott Adams

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