The Focus Group Is Dead

It’s time to smash that two-way mirror and start again

Testing the camera set-up for our reinvented focus group

If you walk the aisles in a typical US supermarket, you’ll have 30,000–50,000 different products to choose from. All of these had to go through a process of invention and development to reach the shelf, and as part of that, most of them went through a focus group.

And yet, when you talk to people who work in innovation, they will always have a story about how bad focus groups are. How did something so disliked get so widespread?

My all-time worst focus group took place in a downtown Chicago research facility. The room looked like a cross between a nail bar and a pre-school: bright colors, kitsch art, and every flat surface covered with crayons or Legos. The only thing puncturing the illusion of creativity and fun was the two-way mirror dominating one wall.

I sat on the other side of the mirror, in a chamber that was kept gloomy so that it wouldn’t be visible through the glass. Half a dozen middle managers from a food company sat with me. They ignored the Legos, did email on their laptops, and generally exuded the level of excitement you’d associate with a visit to the DMV.

Today’s focus groups: bored participants and disengaged observers hiding behind a two-way mirror

In the main space, a female moderator with a clipboard was addressing a group of Craigslist-recruited participants gathered around the painted wooden table.

“Alrighty,” she said. “We’ve shared our weekday meal routines. Next we’re going to be talking about a better-for-you frozen meal for one. I’m going to show you some packaging, and I’d love to get your thoughts. Remember, there are no wrong answers.”

An assistant brought in a set of empty plastic food trays. Some were black and some were green. The participants dutifully picked them up and turned them over in their hands.

“Any preferences?” asked the lady, with patient cheerfulness.

A doughy man in a Wilco t-shirt held up a green tray.

“This one seems a little more… natural?” he ventured. The others around the table nodded along, relieved that someone had offered an opinion.

On my side of the mirror, the manager with responsibility for packaging took a note on his laptop. I scooped some M+Ms from a bowl and sank lower into my chair.

The moderator squinted at her clipboard.

“I want to talk for a moment about vegetables,” she said. “How would you all feel if these meals came with a bigger serving of vegetables?”

The participants looked at each other. The Wilco t-shirt man was again the first to break the silence. “Yeah,” he said, slightly too loudly. “That would be great. I’m always looking to get more vegetables.”

Everyone else agreed, and this time all the managers around me paid attention. Vegetables are the cheapest part of a frozen meal, so a “high vegetable” dinner would be more profitable.

A year later, they would launch this line. It sold so badly that the packages might as well have been nailed to the shelves. In subsequent focus groups, people still said they wanted more vegetables.

Guess what? When someone with a clipboard is paying you to answer questions, sometimes you just tell them what they want to hear.

The Hidden History of the Focus Group

To better understand the madness of the focus group, I decided to research the history.

The story begins in 1938, when a psychoanalyst called Ernst Dichter left Vienna to escape the Nazis and headed for the US. When he arrived in New York, he made an interesting career decision. Instead of helping individuals understand their problems, he decided to offer his psychoanalytic services to corporations.

Dichter’s first client was Procter and Gamble, makers of Ivory soap. He interviewed soap users at New York YMCAs, and concluded that bathing was sexual: “it was the one time when puritanical Americans were allowed to caress themselves” he said. This insight was too racy for puritanical P&G, so he came back with another: bathing was more than just washing away dirt — it also offered psychological cleansing. This was more acceptable, and inspired a successful new slogan, “Get a fresh start with Ivory Soap, and wash all your troubles away.”

Focus group pioneer Ernst Dichter and the Ivory Soap campaign that he inspired

Next came General Mills, who had a problem with their Betty Crocker cake mix. Their food scientists had formulated a dry mix that required only the addition of water. Once placed in the oven, it miraculously blossomed into instant cake. But after a good start, sales flattened. The executives were baffled: the product was more convenient. Why weren’t the housewives buying it?

Dichter gathered groups of women and put them through exercises derived from Freud’s methods of probing the unconscious, including free association and Rorschach tests. He explored their feelings about relationships and their role in the family. And then he started asking them about cake.

What he took away from these sessions was that cake was more than just a sweet baked product. It was loaded with sexual symbolism. He was particularly fascinated by the ritual of the wedding cake, which featured the husband taking a long knife and plunging it into the white cake.

His conclusions, like a good cake, were multilayered. First, the cake was symbolic of the wife’s relationship to the husband, and so she felt guilty making it by just adding some water to powder. Second, the sexually-charged nature of the cake meant that it had associations with fertility, even childbirth.

His solution to these complex issues was simple: General Mills should remove the powdered egg from the formulation, and instead require housewives to add their own fresh eggs.

It’s hard to know whether the executives were swayed by Dichter’s Sexual Theory of Cake, or whether they liked the fact that removing the eggs would save money. Either way, they took his advice. And, sure enough, sales soared.

Other companies soon came calling. Standard Oil wanted to differentiate Esso gasoline from the other identical offerings. Dichter talked to male car drivers, and reported that cars were a reflection of male sexual potency. This inspired a long-running campaign based on the phrase “Put a tiger in your tank”.

In 1958, Mattel approached him to help launch a sexy new doll that had been created by Ruth Handler, wife of founder Elliot Handler. Dichter ran more of his group sessions, and concluded that although mothers were uncomfortable about allowing such a sexualized object into the lives of their daughters, they would allow it — because the doll would teach the grooming skills that would help their daughters attract ideal husbands. And so Barbie was born.

The Austrian psychoanalyst and his “motivational research” approach took US industry by storm. Previously rational manufacturers started to orient their offerings and advertising at the unconscious. This was the era that produced muscle cars, the Marlboro Man, and a lot of extremely moist cake.

Dichter’s focus groups helped launch Barbie, create the Esso tiger, and bring emotion to mass-manufactured products

The focus groups were so popular that Dichter became rich enough to buy a mansion in Croton-on-Hudson. He called it the Institute for Motivational Research, and built rooms containing the now iconic two-way mirrors, so clients could see him at work. He didn’t bother with wacky decor or Lego, though: the magic was what happened between him and the participants. (By the way, if you’re a Mad Men fan, Dr Faye Miller was based on Dichter, albeit in a TV-friendly lady form.)

Inspired by Dichter’s success, other psychologists began to offer focus group services to American businesses. But after a while, the companies tired of writing large checks to academics in bow ties, and instead developed their own consumer insight capabilities.

There were two problems with this. First, Dichter’s psychoanalytic training made him a master of leading conversations to emotional places, and these skills were hard to duplicate. Second, his conclusions were based on intuitive leaps. He didn’t ask “When you make a cake, are you re-enacting childbirth?”. Instead he facilitated a conversation around motivations, and then had the confidence to form his own interpretations.

This kind of interpretive approach could be pulled off by a confident outsider with an impressive accent. It was harder for an employee: they were under pressure to produce objective evidence, which led to them recounting what people actually said. That, of course, missed the whole point.

As Dichter put it: “You would be amazed to find how we mislead ourselves, when we attempt to explain why we behave the way we do.” He described human motivation as an iceberg, with most of it hidden from view. When focus groups moved inside corporations, it became much harder to speculate about the submerged parts of the iceberg.

Over the decades that followed, focus groups stopped being the source of intuitive leaps. And so we got questions about the color of a tray. And a man in a Wilco t-shirt pretending that he wanted more vegetables.

Motivational research took America by storm. This was the era that produced muscle cars, the Marlboro Man, and a lot of extremely moist cake.

Like many people, I’d thought of the 1950s as a narrow-minded era, dominated by conservative businessmen in grey flannel suits. But these guys had let Dichter into their boardrooms, and used his radical findings about consumers’ unconscious desires to guide their strategy. That was pretty gutsy.

But times had changed. The thing that bore the focus group name today was a sad echo of the original. Like cassette tapes and smoking on airplanes, its time was over. If you wanted to decide a tray color, you could use an online survey. And if you wanted inspiration, the best approach was ethnographic interviews in consumers’ homes.

One person who got to hear a lot of this argument was my colleague Ryan. Before working at IDEO, he had been at General Mills, home of Betty Crocker cake mix. I figured that he had done his time behind the two-way mirror, and would agree with my assessment. But to my surprise, he pushed back.

“Focus groups might not generate the wild leaps that they did in the 50s,” he said, “But they’re still an effective way to check in with a big group of consumers.”

By contrast, ethnography was horribly time-consuming: you could spend weeks doing research and still only have spoken to a handful of people.

“But hanging out with people in a real life situation is way more inspiring,” I protested. “You can build a genuine connection with them.”

Ryan nodded.“You can. But how do you transfer that connection to people who weren’t there? That’s the thing that’s changed since Dichter: the bosses won’t trust an outsider’s interpretation any more, even if he does have a cool European accent.”

“OK,” I said, “You’ve convinced me that ethnography isn’t perfect, but you can’t tell me that today’s focus groups don’t suck.”

Ryan is descended from Scandinavians, and his Viking ancestry will occasionally emerge when he decides to bludgeon his way through challenges.

“Why don’t we redesign the focus group?”

Can the Focus Group be Saved?

Ryan (left) and the author test the camera system for our new focus group format

Our attempt at a reimagined focus group took place at the IDEO Chicago office on a Wednesday evening. We had just four participants, three of them women. As they signed their release forms, they displayed the usual slightly-guarded attitude of strangers who will probably never see each other again. This diffidence was our first target.

“We’re going to do things a little differently tonight,” I explained. “We’re going to start with half an hour of warm-up exercises.”

One of them asked about these exercises, and here I made a mistake:

“They’re all taken from improv classes. We have a trainer here from Second City who is going to lead us through them.”

Second City trainer Jay Steigmann (left) leads our participants through a set of improv-derived warm-up exercises

Their eyes widened in horror. I might as well have asked them all to remove their clothes. Fortunately the Second City trainer had seen it all before. Ignoring their discomfort, she had us all stand in a circle and start passing imaginary objects to each other. As soon as people were comfortable with one exercise, she’d change it up, gradually increasing the intensity of the goofiness. By the time the 30 minutes were up, we were all miming, dancing and even singing. It had been tense for a few minutes, but it seemed like the first part of our plan had worked: after the trial-by-improv-fire, everyone was bonded as a group. It helped that the IDEO team was doing the exercises too: there was no-one in the room playing a judgement role.

The no-authority principle also applied to the subsequent conversation. We sat in a room with lounge furniture and introduced the topic: we were running a project around food delivery and meal kits, and wanted to understand more about the emotions of cooking. We had some questions we’d prepared ahead of time, but instead of having a clipboard-toting facilitator, we’d written the questions on scraps of paper and put them in a bowl — so that everyone could take turns picking them out and asking each other.

The first question was “Tell me a time when a meal has gone horribly wrong.” As people shared stories of kitchen disasters, I nodded along, but did not take any notes. We wanted this to feel like a dinner party game, and for the group to collectively get into a sharing mindset.

The reason I could avoid writing things down was about to be revealed. As soon as the conversation was in full flow, we began pulling people out one-by-one for individual 15min interviews, on camera. The usual problem with video is that, no matter how good the subject feels, the unblinking black eye of the camera lens is terrifying. Fortunately, we’d found a solution, invented by documentary film-maker Errol Morris.

When shooting his interviews with the likes of defense secretary Robert McNamara, Morris had also faced the challenge of subjects struggling to talk into the camera. His solution was a combination of cameras, screens and teleprompter mirrors that allowed him to create the illusion of a face-to-face interview. The participants would feel that they were looking into the eyes of the interviewer, while actually talking directly into a concealed camera. It looks complicated, but it works brilliantly. The only thing we didn’t like about Morris’ invention was the name: he called it the Interrotron. We told our participants that it was a “Video Selfie Machine”.

The Interrotron: each person sees the face of the other reflected up onto a teleprompter mirror. Behind the glass a hidden camera captures video.

The video interviews were deliberately loose: the interviewer could follow the conversation wherever it went. However we always opened with the same question: “Tell me about a time that involved cooking with a loved one.”

What emerged were a set of moving stories about the emotional connection brought about by making meals, and a remarkably consistent theme around how this generation felt guilty for not learning the cooking skills of their forebears.

A participant called Melanie talked about how, when her parents got older, they stopped hosting big meals for all her relatives. “That’s where my family started to fall apart,” she said, knitting her brows as she battled to hold back tears.

Looking directly into the camera, she talked about how she had failed to learn family recipes from her parents and grandparents, and how this didn’t just impact her ability to cook: it meant that she lacked a way to bring her extended family together.

Watching this footage in the days following our session, I found myself strangely affected. I’d come into this exercise with a lot of intellectual notions about the design of focus groups, and I was secretly hoping for some outlandish Dichter-esque insights. But instead of food-as-sex, what I saw was food-as-love. The combination of group exercises and a camera trick provided a window into the symbolism of cooking.

What we learned wasn’t as provocative as “husbands want to make love to cake”, but it was meaningful and affecting. It was easy to see how meal kit providers could design tools for education and family connection into their offers. Thanks to the video, I could experience up close the pain that someone felt — rather than just read a quote in a powerpoint deck. As a result, I was more motivated to help solve the problem.

IDEO researcher Meredith Adams-Smart prepares to interview someone in the next room

When we shared our findings with other people at IDEO, some questioned whether what we’d done was even a focus group. Their question makes sense: looking around today, focus groups look like product test sessions that take place behind a two-way mirror. But if you go back to its origins, the focus group was a tool for creativity: a way to find inspiration by delving into the hidden emotions of a group. That’s the experience we’re trying to revive. And besides, we live in the era of the reboot. If tired old formats like Star Trek can be revived, why not focus groups?

We’re early in this journey: we will have to see if the insights from our new focus group format lead to world-changing new ideas. But what is already apparent is that it’s possible to use group sessions to connect to people on an emotional level, rather than just taking an inventory of their opinions on a clipboard.

Of course, businesses run on data. Data is required to make decisions. But data needs to be balanced by empathy and humanity. The single-minded quest for data can reduce consumer connection to questions like “black tray or green tray?”

The sociologist Brené Brown has a great quote: “Maybe stories are just data with a soul”. That’s what we got out of this experiment: soulful data.

We’re going to keep exploring this format. Because, like Dichter, we want to go deeper into the hearts and minds of the people we’re designing for. And like Errol Morris, we want to find new ways to look each other in the eye, and feel empathy.