If you’re a fan of The Apprentice you’d be forgiven for thinking that a focus group is an opportunity to convince your target audience that they want your product. You may believe that it is simply a mechanism to convince other people in your team that your original idea was the best after all, and the focus group agreed with you (even if they didn’t).
We have a lot to thank The Apprentice for, where else would you get to see a group of egotistical, arrogant, deluded fantasists all backstabbing and lying their way to a high paid salary. It’s great entertainment. But it also has a lot to answer for too. Not only does it promote the idea that to succeed in business you need to be a bit of an arse, but it also gives the concept of customer research a terrible image.
Candidates in The Apprentice run focus groups really badly
Every year I watch The Apprentice I grumble to my partner about the appalling way the candidates grill focus group participants. Their approach is to either present them with an idea and ask if they like it, or they tell them about the concept, ask for thoughts and then argue the participants into submission. When this doesn’t work and the focus group clearly dislikes the concept they just ignore it and carry on regardless.
It’s no surprise that The Apprentice candidates have produced some awful products with their poor approach to customer research. Think of the cardboard camping table (Cardboard + Mud = Ugly Mess), the beach book holder (which was unstable, hard to assemble and you couldn’t turn the page) or the classic environmentally friendly greeting cards (sending cards wasn’t the most environmentally friendly idea). None of these ideas should have passed through a well-designed and correctly facilitated focus group.
4 lessons The Apprentice candidates need to learn
So what should next year’s candidates of The Apprentice do differently to run an effective focus group? Here are 4 lessons we think would make a big difference to give them a much better foundation to create a great product using focus groups.
1) If you don’t ask, you don’t get
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen” Winston Churchill
If you don’t want to hear opinions which may challenge and contradict your ideas, there’s no point in a focus group. You have to be prepared to be guided by the research. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should blindly follow what participants tell you. But you should be able to use the information you gain in the focus group to stimulate new ideas and refine current ones. If you’re already sold on your idea and are only doing a focus group to prove you’re right, don’t bother. Save your time and effort.
2) Don’t speak, listen
If you want to run a focus group correctly, never argue with, or try to convince a participant that they are wrong. You are there to hear their opinions and understand their perspective. Not the other way around. If participants don’t like an idea, don’t understand the value in something, or are bewildered by the concept, that’s a good finding. It highlights a change in strategy is needed. It also reflects what customers may think when presented with the product in store, where you won’t be able to convince them it’s worth buying.
3) Ask a stupid question…
Asking leading questions is an easy mistake to make when conducting customer research for the first time. Asking them with an enthusiastic smile “What do you think?” communicates the outcome you are hoping for. What you’re really saying is “Tell me you like my new design that I just worked really hard on”. People generally want to please not disappoint. We all have a tendency to tell someone what we think they want to hear. Customer research needs to be designed to get to the truth, to strip away biases, influences and the chance for hurt feelings. At the very least, you should make sure that the person facilitating the group has no vested interest in the outcome of the research. In other words: If it’s your idea, stay well away!
4) Research helps generate ideas
Conduct a focus group before you commit to an idea. The best way to use a focus group is to understand the needs of the group, uncover gaps and exploit new ideas from there. Once those ideas are more concrete you can return to the group to test different variations and refine a concept further.
Feel free to pass these tips on to Lord Sugar for me if you like, oh and Donald Trump and Martha Stewart too.
What do you think? What else do The Apprentice candidates need to learn?
About Damian Rees
Damian has worked as a usability and user experience consultant for over 13 years. He has worked in senior roles within companies like the BBC and National Air Traffic Services where he has researched and designed for users in a variety of different contexts including web applications, voice recognition, and air traffic control interfaces. Follow Damian on twitter @damianrees