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.