Forget focus groups. Just watch users, innovator says.

March 20, 2003
Focus groups have been a fad among some product developers looking for the latest ideas. The theory is that a select group of users can point the way to the next big design improvement.

Ideo has worked on about 3,000 products, among them the colorful I-Zone cameras for Polaroid Corp. Other designs include the Leap office chair for Steeplechase Inc. and computers for Palm Inc.

But don't put too much faith in focus groups, says Tom Kelley, a product innovator with Ideo design studios, Palo Alto, Calif. ( "People are raised to be polite, so they won't say what's really on their minds. Their comments only help with small improvements," he adds.

For instance, one focus group concluded that a fast rewinding system was the must-have feature on VCRs. So the group sponsor went ahead and designed a fast rewind into its system. But about the same time as the product hit the market, DVDs were catching on and demand for VCRs plunged. In another example of misdirection, a focus group insisted yellow was the coolest color for a portable radio. To express gratitude for their effort, the group leader told each member to take a radio from the samples. Nearly everyone wanted the black model.

One of Kelley's mantras is that innovation begins with an eye. "Just watch how customers use your products." Not long ago, for instance, a fishing-equipment company was concerned about the fall off in the number of kids fishing. When asked to research the problem, Ideo's team visited lakes and streams, saw numerous young fishermen, and realized they were looking at the wrong problem. So Ideo started observing parents trying to buy fishing equipment. Surprise: The apparent fall off was because fathers were confused, especially when faced with huge display racks of equipment at department stores like Wal-Mart. Kelly's solution was to simplify the purchase with a kit for kids -- everything in one package, including synthetic bait.

Another Kelley guideline is to make lots of prototypes. "It's the language of innovators," he adds. "Don't attach your ego too early to one idea. Instead, make lots of prototypes quickly. You'll have many small failures but they will be on the way to a big success." He also suggests living the future. "Try peering about ten years into the future and work toward that direction. Turning up the status quo a notch is a blah way to design," he says.

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