Beware the focus group of one

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I read a great post by Jeff Bussgang (an entrepreneur turned VC) where he talked about “Mother in law market research”.  He shared a quote by his MBA classmate:

“I think [this consumer product] will be a hit because I can see my mother-in-law buying it.”

I don’t have to explain why such an assertion should never be made without supporting data (e.g. does the MIL match the primary or secondary personas?  Does she have the right demographic / psychographic profile?  Was there qualitative and quantitative research to prove the same?)

The “focus group of one” happens to the best of us, regardless of our roles.  Sometimes we use the MIL, most times we project our own views onto the target personas.

It generally goes like this.  Someone in the company becomes fixated to some product feature.   99% of the time, he or she is not a good match to the target personas.   (He can be a man commenting on a product to fix hot flashes for menopausal women.)  He or she would share his/her opinion:

“Yesterday I saw a demo of <product feature>, and it immediately made me think people can <achieve improbable application of product feature to unrealistic use case>.  I am now absolutely convinced we must line up all our resources to optimize the user experience for <unrealistic use case> because if I thought of this,  lots of other people would want to do that too.”

I’ve seen it happen to  founders, CEO’s, CTO’s, COO’s, or SVP’s of something-or-other.  For all their brains and success (present and past), they fall into the trap of believing they can project themselves into the minds of target end users, without taking the time to really understand the latter.

Unfortunately, these guys routinely underestimate the magnitude of thrashing they can cause.   Let’s face it, if the SVP Sales declares that product feature X must do Y, the product team isn’t going to spend 2 minutes convincing her otherwise.  Instead, it is going to spend 2 business days putting together a well structured argument, based on facts.  Then they will make an appointment with her to present their arguments.   They may even commission a new research study to put the argument to bed.

And let’s face it… if she remains unconvinced despite hard facts, and the company is set up in that way, Feature X shall do Y in the next release.  Forget about the research results and the needs of the end users.

So, to folks on the management team:   please don’t become the focus group of one.  At best, you will waste much more time of your product team than you realize.  At worst, your stray comments could cost your company its ability to develop great products.

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2 Responses to “Beware the focus group of one”


  1. 1 Josh Duncan February 28, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Elaine,

    Couldn’t agree with you more on the challenge of dealing with the “focus group of one”.

    I think one of the main scenarios here is that when the company starts small, the (founder,CEO, head of sales, etc) was directly connected to the target customer. The problem is as the company grows and starts targeting new use-cases and customers, the (founder,CEO, head of sales, etc) does not always realize that his/her perspective is no longer representative of the target.

    Inevitably, this is how “Feature X shall do Y” ends up in the next release whether it is relevant or not.

    Thanks for the post!

    Josh

    • 2 Elaine Chen February 28, 2010 at 10:19 am

      I guess the only response possible is to have great facts at hand and be able to wax lyrical about them on a moment’s notice… if the person in the focus group of one is any good, they would react to facts. It all comes back to access to customers and great and ongoing research programs to let the voice of the customer arbitrate.


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