Focus groups are worthless.

Now, I’ll tell you how I really feel

Erika Hall
Sep 22, 2014 · 5 min read

If I achieve one thing with my time here on earth, I might be content if that one thing could be burning to the ground the practice of running focus groups in place of actual user research.

Sociology is the scientific study of social behavior. Focus groups emerged from the “focused interviews” developed by American Sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) as a way to better understand that behavior.

Merton and his co-authors outlined four characteristics of this method:

  1. Interviewees are known to have been involved in a particular situation (have taken part in an experiment, have seen a film, heard a radio program, etc.).

From The Focused Interview: A Manual of Problems and Procedures, by Merton Fiske, and Kendall (1956).

In later years, Merton deplored how focus groups came to be misused.

“Even when the subjects are well selected, focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched.”

The Word Lab”, The New Yorker, October 8, 2000

I wish Robert K. Merton were still alive to study and report back on why otherwise intelligent people continue to run focus groups and base product decisions on them. It’s a sickness (probably a lucrative one). Strangely, despite their retro form and intent, focus groups seem to be baked quite deeply into a business culture that keeps going on about innovation.

Even the author of a piece assertively titled Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation, couldn’t help including a little hedge, “Focus groups aren’t useless. They can be insightful for fine-tuning something for the short term.”

No, no, no. Don’t pull back. Drive in the stake until the vampire bursts.

User research is hard — not because recruiting participants and conducting interviews are difficult, the logistics have never been easier or less expensive. True user research is hard to take because it forces you to consider the true behaviors of real people who aren’t like you and quickly reveals wishful thinking.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” — Steve Jobs

People with an aversion to asking questions conflate focus groups and (ethnographic) user research — and use the weakness inherent in focus groups to dismiss all research. Or, they want to do research, but only if it looks like a focus group, because sitting around a table next to a two-way mirror feels science-y. You can’t deny the visceral satisfaction of otherwise useless research theatre.

You Might As Well Hold a Tea Party

A focus group is an artificial construct that is so much about the group dynamic. No one buys shoes, cooks dinner, votes, banks, or even buys movie tickets sitting at a table under florescent lights while engaged in a moderated group discussion. I am certain a lot of productive work takes place sitting around tables at Starbucks with homogenous groups of random strangers, but none of them are interacting with each other. Unless you are designing something for use in a focus group, focus groups are absolutely meaningless as an ethnographic research tool.

If you are doing market research, and want to keep doing focus groups because that’s your jam as well as your bread and butter, don’t let me stop you (although I invite you to stop yourself). But if you are doing research to inform the design of a product or service, run far away from that two-way mirror.

User research should be ethnography. That is something that tells you how people actually behave in a particular context and why. Sometimes there is a relationship between expressed opinions and actual behaviors (I like swimming. I go swimming. I buy swimming gear online.). Often, there is not. Many of what I might tell myself are my favorite activities are things I don’t actually do. I don’t think I’ve been hiking in a year.

Habit Rules Everything Around Me

People are lazy, forgetful, creatures of habit. We all are. This is why the mega bestselling book is called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, instead of An Infinite Number of Novel Tasks Performed by Highly Effective People.

Being a lazy, forgetful creature of habit is completely rational. We only have so much energy and attention, with increasing demands upon it. Why should any of us do anything that requires more work? Why should we go out of our way, or commit a new fact to memory when the internet can remember it for us.

But what works for each of us as individuals can make life very difficult for our organizations and businesses. How do you reach people who have so much competition for their attention and such well-honed abilities to ignore things? And how do you make sure that you are working for a realistic view of what those priorities are, instead of making assumptions or relying on wishful thinking?

If you are working on a new product or service, or redesigning an existing one, you need to know how what you offer fits into people’s lives. Doing something different requires a behavioral change. The more you can fit what you are doing into existing habits and offer a lot of value for very little effort, the more successful you will be. To do that you have to understand what actually results in very little effort for your target customers.

Hello! Does your team need help gathering the right data and working together to make confident product decisions?

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Everything focus groups purport to give you, you can get through interviews and contextual inquiry, without the unpleasant side effects. Here is what you get from a focus group:

  1. Opinions that participants are willing to speak in the presence of a group of strangers.

One-on-one interviews can be challenging to get right, but they always have the following advantages:

  1. Fast to set up and run.

So, please please please talk to people. If you’re a designer or an entrepreneur, or at all involved in the creation of things for people to use, you will never run out of reasons to talk to people. But please also be honest about your reasons and critical of your methods. Design for the real world, not the fictional one you’ll hear discussed on the other side of the looking glass.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

Erika Hall

Written by

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.