Focus groups – just not a predictive tool

orange splash.jpgFollowing Seth’s “But the focus group loved it”,
I tried to map what focus groups do and don’t, based on my experience. My overall conclusion is that the most common mistake with focus groups is to try and use them as a predictive tool.

Focus groups can help you…

  • Map various attitudes towards existing products, brands and concepts – things that have been out in the market for a while.
  • Limited understanding of usage patterns (not for interactive products – usability & experience labs do that much better).
  • Support the interpretation of quantitative research results.
  • Locate problems and gaps in existing experience.
  • Create additional hypotheses to your own to check with further research (that’s the only bit that is slightly predictive).
  • Support mapping of worldviews and cultural themes connected to the issue as part of the general research


  • Never use them to judge or justify innovation, most participants are immediately conservative in group context , especially if you’re aiming to address/create a new want.
  • Be very cautious when dealing with arenas where there is peer pressure for conformity on emotions and worldviews (and which arenas aren’t?).
  • Don’t use for arenas where the psycho-social situation is too complex. Don’t expect them to give you deep or specific understanding of emotions and social situations.
  • Don’t use them for highly individualistic arenas – ones where personal taste, attitude, worldview etc vary greatly.
  • Never ever ever use them to judge creative concepts & work .

Overall, my experience taught me that you get better results from ethnographic research and from personal interviews for most of the goals focus groups are usually chosen for.

Over the years, many many times clients have asked me to check if a concept is “right” using focus groups. My answer is: “Yes, as long as we’re talking on the old, existing, concept.”

[I was happy to discover this post has been qouted in Fortune’s “Business Innovation Insider”]

Update: No.  Calling focus groups “Consumer Panels” does not change anything.
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4 thoughts on “Focus groups – just not a predictive tool

  1. That’s a nice way to frame it, thanks. I’m getting more push to use focus groups of one form or another lately; it’s coming when someone has already decided what methodology they want to use before they approach me for help.

    The last time these groups were proposed as a way to get more client involvement. Although we also planned to do individiual interview sessions as well, the belief seemed to be that observing the groups was the way to get the clients involved, and even the better tool for getting “deeper.”

    I think the “default” nature of groups is a curious and frustrating mindset.


  2. Groups can have interesting purposes (and results) when they are used with other tools. I think we just have to resist some clients knee jerk reaction of “let’s validate that with some focus groups.”


  3. In most cases focus group totally lack ecological validity since it operates in a socio-cultural void. Thus, instead of just listening to what consumers have to say, we should start participating in, and observing, people’s lives and social contexts. (as you said Uri – ethnography)

    Our goal should be to bring a whole world more realistically to life. We should make an effort to move beyond research that seems to be articulated primarily in terms of the unmediated ‘present-at-hand’ mode of engagement with the consumer and start adopting a more contextual approach that is focused on the relations between the consumer, the brand (or product) and the wider social context. People in artificial settings generate artificial responds. (For many problems, focus groups or surveys work just fine. but in the context of creative development I believe that the main purpose of focus groups is predominantly to make the client feel secure and ‘in-control’).


  4. Pingback: Focus Group Fou-Fou « NEWLOGIC

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