Henry Ford famously said, “if I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse'”.
Many businesses treat focus groups as prophetic. Whether looking for inspiration or validation, they give staggering authority to eight strangers gathered on the other side of a one-way mirror. After one particularly idea-sapping focus group, a creative director leaned over to me and said, “do you think these eight women realize how much power they have?” We jokingly referred to them as the Oracles of Eden Prairie.
Focus groups have their place in the field of consumer insights. Yet they are poorly equipped to answer many questions, particularly involving innovations that are dramatically different from what has been done before. It’s rare that remarkable or unique business ideas originate in an eight-member focus group. Most consumers don’t really know what they want, and if they do, they have a difficult time articulating it.
HBS professor Gerald Zaltman first opened my eyes to the power of a non-focus group approach in consumer research. He created a process called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) to unearth consumer insights that are deeper than consumers know how to articulate themselves. We experimented with these techniques in the classroom. Dan Pink wrote a great profile on Zaltman that captures the value of this approach:
“People can give us only what we give them the opportunity to provide,” Zaltman says. “To the extent that we structure the stimulus – whether it’s a discussion guide in a focus group or a question in a survey – all people can do is respond. And there’s value in that. But I see those as strip-mining techniques. Sometimes the valuable ore is on the surface. But often it’s not. Strip-mining techniques are inappropriate when there’s a great deal more depth to be had. Typically, the deeper you go, the more value there is.”
Asking the Oracles of Eden Prairie to tell you what they want is a good technique if you’re in the “faster horse” business. But, if you’re trying to create something meaningfully different, experiment with research methods that are also meaningfully different.