A few months ago I read an article on fastcodesign.com how useless focus groups are in innovation trajectories. Yesterday, I read another article on the same site; a reaction on the earlier article. Reason worth mentioning: both articles come from the same author, a designer named Gianfranco Zaccai. He is the man behind the Reebok Pump and the Swiffer.

His first article is named ‘Why Focus Groups Kill Innovation’; the second is titled ‘Focus Groups Are Dangerous’. For your explanation, a focus group is a group of people, who are asked about their perceptions, opinions and attitudes towards a (new) product or idea. It is as a form of qualitative research. Focus groups are applied in the creative industry. Some designers clearly have problems with focus groups. They question their role in the innovation process. Do they have a point?

The first article explains that focus groups are basically useless in the design process. They only slow down innovation, or kill it in the end anyway. Reason: the user doesn’t know what he or she wants or needs. In his second article he polishes his harsh initial opinion a bit, saying they DO have an interesting say, but as a designer you should be VERY CAREFULL working with focus groups. You should only use them when they have literally NOTHING more to contribute: “Focus groups are about fine-tuning for mass appeal”.

I think these designer-opinions are based on the fear that the consumer will replace them in the design process. I dare to say that this is just a typical designer-related generation and/or ego issue. Well, please say hi to the next generation designers. We do not see consumers and our end-user as the enemy. We will not use words as “Kill” and “Dangerous” when we talk about focus groups. These people are buying our products, for crying out loud!

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In my company, we work with focus groups in every step of the design trajectory (the picture is taken in Nairobi, a focus group for a new motorcycle). Sure, we rely on the designers bringing in the real innovations, but all our innovations are in the end still based on insights, needs, problems and wishes from consumers, which we generate in…focus group sessions. We listen to understand consumers with the aim of making product with meaning for them. We don’t expect them to come with real innovations, let the real designers with good ears do that.

And yes, I also make jokes about the crazy ideas consumers come with. I believe and agree with the articles that since we are the designers, we know how to innovate. But take it from me, without consumers we would just be people who can’t write articles in the first place.