Why Designers Need to Focus on Focus Groups

The design team can play an important role in research and focus group testing.

xerox palo alto

Back in the day–and by “the day,” I mean the legendary days of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and legendary computer scientist Alan Kay–we would say, “We spend millions in research and development figuring everything out, and then the first consumer who walks up to the machine can tell you everything that’s wrong.” Today, market research is a $19 billion industry and focus groups are one of the most expensive types of market research. The question is, what role should design play in the process?


Designers are keen observers, just like researchers. But designers are very different animals who process information in a unique way. We seem to pick up signals from consumers that differ from the ones researchers observe. This capacity, combined with the collaborative nature of the design discipline, allows designers to fuse together research insight into winning solutions.

Long before our design concepts are tested, consumers are watched and engaged through everything imaginable, all in pursuit of the holy grail of profound market insight. But here’s the problem: What consumers do and what they say they do are very different things. Even what consumers think they do and what they actually do are different. This is where market research is greatly aided by including designers in the research process. Being involved during all stages of research triggers something in designers that would otherwise simply be lost in translation, no matter how it’s communicated. This is the ultimate way to design from the first person perspective.

Once you’ve transformed market insights into design concepts, it’s time to brave that sometimes bone-chilling experience of focus group testing. And yes, it can be Garbage In, Garbage Out. But there’s a little-cited corollary to that adage: Gold In, Gold Out. Focus groups are like anything else; you get out of them what you put into them.

Bean Bag Room

Rarely have I seen focus group members tell us what they want. But they sure can tell us what they like and dislike. And, if we ask, often enough they will open up and tell us why. I’ve seen the best results when the design concepts are contextualized into the consumer’s framework and leave little to the imagination. For example, when we tested cooking range concepts we found that our best conceptual renderings couldn’t generate valid answers from focus groups. But when we placed our fully-developed design model next to competitive products, we started to see real answers about consumer likes and dislikes. Furthermore, these answers contradicted what the prior subjects had said about the designs when merely looking at artists’ concepts. The lesson was clear. Don’t give your subjects the experiences of being research subjects. Give them a consumer experience and they’ll give you real, valuable consumer insight.

So, do your research by observing subjects in real consumer situations. Ask them the right questions and develop the empathy and insight needed to fuel your design process. Then create authentic prototypes. Once you’ve crossed the line of believability, when you can give your subjects a real consumer experience, then you should go to a focus group.

I love focus groups. I love them a lot. Why? Because, when we do our homework right, the results are overwhelmingly positive, validating our concepts, and, on occasion, giving us key insights into minor modifications than can amp up a design another degree to make it even more of a market success. Who couldn’t love that?


[Photos Courtesy of Xerox PARC]

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Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.


Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety
of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that
includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among
many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150
patents on behalf of their clients.

In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design
Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek
Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results.
Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct
its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating
design’s power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design
strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is
a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC’s
Marshall School of Business, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Business,
where he teaches this business-driven design tool.


In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the
founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative
computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products
company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the
electric guitar.

About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue