On focus groups and market research

I saw a great quote today on Mike Hirshland’s blog.

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'”

The quote is Henry Ford’s, and the lesson is that asking people what they want is usually – repeat, usually – not likely to give you the inside track on a revolutionary new product, service, or idea.


Because most people will simply give you incremental improvements on already-existing ideas. We’ve got horse now, we want faster horses. We have buggy whips now, we want better buggy whips.

(Incidentally, this is reminiscent of Detroit’s answer to falling interest in American cars: more horsepower.)

I think there’s only two guaranteed ways of coming up with new ideas:

  1. Be a little crazy and outside-the-box yourself, and take something you’re passionate about to the nth degree.
  2. Watch people – the right people – who are trend leaders in the ecosystem that you’re trying to enter.

So the focus group is out: observation of key people (mavens in Malcolm Gladwell-speak).

In both cases you are pushing the edge, or reinventing the standard. But neither of the two approaches, of course, give you any guarantees about the quality of your new ideas.

[tags] trends, malcolm gladwell, tipping point, creativity, innovation, market research, focus groups [/tags]