Just the Facts, Ma'am

For Chapter 8 -- "Sometimes You Just Have to Lego"

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In my last post, I wrote about Corsinel, a compression garment for ostomy patients double afflicted with hernia. The control-top underwear, replacing the cumbersome springs and belts of a truss, was developed by the Danish firm Coloplast as a direct result of the deftly branded Ostomy Roadshow 2003.

Now, you might ask, "It was a mobile consumer-research unit. Just a focus group on wheels. What's so Next Big Thing about that? " Not a bad question, either. But you have unwittingly gotten to the heart of everything wrong with the bad old days and everything promising about the Brave New World.

For starters, Corsinel didn't just ask a few questions, hand everybody 50 bucks and send them on their way. This was a concerted effort to understand the day-to-day challenges, frustrations and desires of the consumer. Upon learning hernia is an ongoing nuisance, they could have easily said "Thanks for your time. We'll handle it from here." But they didn't. They kept the same consumers involved in every stage of the product development. More significantly still, they actually understood what a focus group is for. Which is more than you can say for almost everyone else in the world who uses them.

After all, no matter how carefully you select the six or eight people around that conference table, and no matter how skilled the moderator, what you harvest at a focus group is not data. Let me repeat that: focus group results are not data. They are gab. There is not one single result you obtain there that is projectable against a population larger than the one in the room itself (and maybe not even them, because group dynamics dictate that people convened in such circumstances don't necessarily say – or even know – what they think about the subject at hand.)

The technique is popular and the industry is large not because it is in any way reliable. On the contrary, the "results" are statistically as likely to reflect the opposite of reality as they are to reflect truth. Eight people do not constitute a sample. They barely constitute a cocktail party. But focus groups flourish for two reasons:

1) They're cheap – pennies on the dollar versus actual research conducted in privacy with a statistically significant sample of respondents and a low margin of error.

2) They make you feel sooooo good. You can sit there on the client side of the two-way mirror and delude yourself into thinking you're getting in touch with the consumer, or the electorate or whomever. This is an especially splendid feeling when the conversation seems to validate the decisions you've probably already made. "You see, Frank? These people do want tort reform/yogurt shampoo!"

The pity of this foolishness is that true benefit of the focus group is squandered. What they are good for, what they are actually invaluable for, is mining insights. In other words, for revealing something you hadn't thought of. That's why you should, for instance, test TV commercials with focus groups: not to generate some sort of bogus test score that supposedly tells you if the thing communicates the copy points, but in case someone in the room says: "I don't think you should be doing homophobia jokes in a Super Bowl candy bar ad because I don't want to explain it to my kids and I think it's mean and it actually kind of grosses me out."

Yes, sometimes in the corporate bunker the obvious can escape you. Yet in some back room at the shopping mall, with the help of some random dullards dragged from in front of Kay Jewelers, the obvious can smack you right upside the head.

Think of Sgt. Joe Friday. Episode after "Dragnet" episode, he and Gannon would interview citizens and ask them questions about the crime, only to come up dry. Then, invariably, in response to no question at all, the citizen would chime in with an utterly unsolicited parting comment. "Oh, Sergeant, this probably isn't important, but I did see a man running from the crime scene."

"Yes, ma'am. Was he saying anything?"

"Well, nothing that made sense, Sergeant. I was quite a distance away, but he seemed to be complaining about his truss."
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