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Don’t Waste Your Best Ideas on Focus Groups

The best ideas would do terribly in focus groups, says designer Gianfranco Zaccai, because people don't know that they're going to like new things

Meet the idea killers. Image: Voka Kamer van Koophandel Limburg

Think of a good idea. Right now. Go on, do it. Okay fine, it’s hard. But let’s say you had an idea. How do you know it’s good? You might think to ask some people their opinions about it, but if you had something really special, that might be exactly the wrong thing to do.

The best ideas would do terribly in focus groups, says designer Gianfranco Zaccai, because people don’t know that they’re going to like new things. At Fast Company, he writes:

As Steve Jobs famously asserted, true innovation comes from recognizing an unmet need and designing a creative way to fill it. But focus groups can’t identify those needs for the simple reason that most people don’t know what they are missing until they experience it. A focus group can work in adding incremental improvements to an already existing product or service. But for truly game-changing ideas, they are more likely to cast doubt and skepticism upon them just because they are unfamiliar.

Zaccai gives a few examples. Take chairs with mesh backs. Or the Swiffer (which Zaccai’s company Continuum developed). Neither of those things sounded like good ideas at all to people at the time, and now they’re totally ubiquitous. But how do you replace a focus group? Zaccai has these four suggestions:

1. Consider not just the act of using the product but the total experience around it.

2. Go beyond the obvious to what cannot be seen.

3. Test new products out in the field.

4. Invest in leaders who recognize the importance of calculated risks.

Once you’ve got your idea honed, you might actually want to use a focus group. Zaccai says:

Focus groups aren’t useless. They can be insightful for fine-tuning something for the short term. But true innovation is about more than just incremental improvement, it’s about revolutionizing a product or a service; in fact, it should be about redefining an experience. A Swiffer is still recognizable as a mop; a Reebok Pump is still a basketball shoe; an Aeron Chair is still an office chair. But in each case, the innovation embedded into the product created a real change in people’s lives.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Innovators to Watch in 2012
Before Steve Jobs: 5 Corporate Innovators who Shaped Our World

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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