Readers of this blog know that I've been quite critical of focus groups in the past. Put simply, the problem with focus groups is that people often say one thing and do another. In the real world, they do not behave in a manner consistent with their responses in focus group settings. Those inconsistencies emerge for a number of reasons including the use of leading questions by the facilitators and the emergence of social pressures for conformity within the groups.
I'm currently reading IDEO CEO Tim Brown's book, Change by Design. I am thoroughly enjoying his discussion of design thinking, particularly as it is practiced at his firm. One practice that jumped out at me was the "unfocus group." Over at Design Thinking Blog, IDEO founder Tom Kelley offers a description of the "unfocus group" technique. He notes:
"Our alternative to the focus group in the early phase of the process is the ‘unfocus’ group where we deliberately bring in people who are on the tails of the normal distribution curve. A lot of these sessions happen in our San Francisco office, and we include really unusual people in the group.
In The Ten Faces of Innovation, I talk about our work on a different kind of shoe. Among others, we included in the ‘unfocus’ group someone who had a shoe fetish and someone else who was a dominatrix. Clearly they aren’t in the wide part of the random bell curve commonly known as ‘normal’. The process involved having these very unusual people tell their stories, and think out loud about what kind of new products or services they would like to have.
By looking at the needs of people at the edge of the distribution curve we sometimes find hints and clues about how we can ratchet their ideas back a bit and serve the big market in the center of the distribution curve. The “unfocus” group is not going for normalcy, not going directly for the center of the distribution curve. It’s going for the tails but getting insights that can be applied to the big markets in the center."
I find this concept very intriguing. These folks in the tails of the distribution are often incredibly passionate about a product, and they often have incredible knowledge about the features that they look for as they make purchase decisions. I think the key challenge with an unfocus group is to remember, however, that you ultimately want to adapt the lessons from these sessions for a larger mainstream audience. One key challenge for many mainstream consumers, for instance, is that they can become intimidated in a retail environment by a feeling that they are a novice among experts. In his book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill explains how mainstream bike shoppers often can be intimidated by retail employees who are die-hard bike enthusiasts who cannot relate to someone who just wants to pedal around their community with their kids. To use the unfocus group effectively, then, one has to be able to make sure that the new product ideas that emerge remain accessible to the mainstream consumer who is far less passionate and knowledgeable about the product category.