Why Focus Groups Lead to Horrible Software



The first rule of great product development is: Don’t ask the customer what they want. But why?

Well, customers have no idea what they want. More importantly, they can’t tell you why they really buy your product. I love the Henry Ford’s quote, “If I’d of asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Funny, right? But also so true.

Seems logical to think “Who better to ask then the customer as to why they buy a product and what they’d love to see as improvements?” And of course, to get any sense of how to improve our product, it seems logical to bring in a large group of people (focus group) to ask. Once the customer tells us what they really want we can make it and undercut the competition with our amazing product. But there are heaps of reasons why this will lead you to developing terrible products.

First, customers aren’t experts in your field. They have no idea what innovations are coming that can deliver a radically new solution for their problems. They only know what’s currently on the market. So when asked, at best they will demand for better, faster, cheaper…. based on what they know, they want a faster horse. But is that really what they want?

What focus group would have told Henry Ford that he needed to take emerging innovations in manufacturing, combustion engineering and design to create a petroleum based vehicle?

In 2006, when the Motorola Razr was selling a staggering 50 Million units annually, which focus group would have suggested a heavier, larger phone with 1/7th the battery life and no keyboard that doesn’t flip to close (which was such a fun and practical feature)? But that’s exactly what we got with the first iPhone. Seven years later the iPhone is still heavier, larger, with a one-day battery life, and no keyboard or flip. Despite everything we clearly stated we wanted, the iPhone is one of the most profitable and successful consumer devices in history. And Motorola? Well Google bought them just for their patents.

Second, users don’t know why they buy your products. But how can they not know? When we make a purchase, our reasons aren’t conscious or even rational. We can recite all the reasons we think we buy, and those reasons make up an entirely plausible narrative. But we’re just guessing. We can say we bought Product X because it tastes best, or hast the best value, is convenient or (least accurate of all) just because it was a spontaneous decision.

The cardinal rule of product development is that there are no spontaneous purchases. As soon as you resign your product to the mindless spontaneous purchase category, you’ve copped out and done a real disservice to your product and the consumer.

But the real reasons behind why we buy what do are far more complex, subtle and emotional than we even realize. Bob Moesta hammers this point home in a fantastic Critical Path podcast. But in essence, the story we tell ourselves and story that actually forms our purchasing decision are not even remotely related to each other. As opposed to focus groups, individual customer interviews are valuable (don’t miss our next post on how to interview your customers in a Jobs-To-Be-Done context), and help us tease out the real jobs customers are hiring our products to do.

Finally, customer choices are (almost) never about price. They are about value. Sure there are some items that a customer simply cannot buy because they are impossible (a middleschool teacher probably doesn’t have the money to buy a $58M Gulfstream G6 ). So maybe a slightly longer version of this rule should be: “If the customer is able to buy a product, price is never a factor.”

When someone tells you your product was just too expensive what they are really saying is it was not valuable enough for them to give up other purchases. We buy items we value. If the value is high enough we forego other purchases in place of the highest value product.

Ask any of us and if humans are rational and most of us will answer with a resounding “Absolutely not.” We are irrational and nuanced in almost every aspect of life. As product developers we need to do the work and dive deep in the subtle and subconscious reasons that really drive customers to hire products. Gleaning the real motivations and desires behind a purchase is a hard task, but essential if you are to create a product with real and lasting value.  Relying on a focus group for your answers is easier but will have you breeding faster horses while your competition makes cars.

You Might Also Like…

The 4 Forces Applied: Why Microsoft’s Conversion Tool Won’t Entice iOS Developers To Windows

Microsoft’s newly announced conversion tool for bringing iOS code to Windows will not be compelling enough to move developers over. The 4 Forces help explain why. The 4 Forces are a lens used to look at why people decide to change their behavior to use a new product or service. It is a wonderfully helpful […]