“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
-Steve Job, Apple CEO in Business Week, May 25 1998

Innovation is the mainstay of niche marketing, yet your customer may not be able tell you what products they will need in the future. And this makes sense if you think about it. Invariably your customers are focused on the here and now. Future needs make great cocktail conversations, but invariably they get put on the backburner. Making payroll and shipping product are just higher priorities.

This is the dilemma of market research and product development. As Steve Jobs infers, customers don’t always know what new products that they will need in two years. Most market research methods, such as focus groups, rely heavily on customers’ opinions about future products. With many industries having product development cycles that require the providers to think two and three years ahead, the challenge becomes even more complex.

So how do you develop future products? According to “Creating a Killer Product” by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor, “To create products that customers want to buy–ones that become so successful they “disrupt” the market? It’s not easy. Three in five new-product-development efforts are scuttled before they ever reach the market. Of the ones that do see the light of day, 40% never become profitable and simply disappear”.

So, on top of everything else, it is easy for new products to fail. The authors additionally said, “Managers need to segment their markets to mirror the way their customers experience life–and not base decisions on irrelevant data that focus on customer attributes. Managers need to realize that customers, in effect, “hire” products to do specific “jobs.” That’s one reason why retail formats like Home Depot and Lowe’s have become so successful: Their stores are literally organized around jobs to be done”.

The lesson is to not build products that are cool or easy to make; instead you need to look for jobs that need to get done tomorrow.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.
My new book “First, Best, or Different” is now available at www.firstbestordifferent.com!
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  1. Liz Levy

    Although it’s a bit of a “straw man” comment to say that you can’t design products by focus groups, a focus group can be a great way to get reactions to a product concept you’ve dreamed up, or ideas for products. You first ask about how they solve a particular problem now, and the drawbacks to the current solutions. Then ask what the “ideal” solution would be (you will get lots of opinions, and you want that). Then, present your product concept as a written description and get first-impression ratings before there is any further discussion. People will then have a chance to say why they rated it favorably or unfavorably. You can then present other features, benefits, pricing, or alternative concepts for their reactions. A series of focus groups my firm did for TiVo provided not only a wealth of valuable feedback, the company was able to convince Direct TV that they should enter into a partnership with them, based on consumers’ obvious enthusiasm for the product concept.

    Liz Levy
    Optimal Edge

  2. Liz,

    Well said.

    Having sold focus groups for living, I am a big believer in them. My point is that companies need to develop solutions (not products) that help customers get things done or fix problems. I liked the “job” analogy that the authors, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor, used.

    I have seen too many companies launch products because they were easy to make and not because they were needed.

    Maybe I could have expressed it better.


  3. Actually, I think you expressed it well…too often, focus groups are used as fishing expeditions, then get blamed for poor results. When used to gather feedback about specific product proposals, they help clarify the reasons why people would or would not buy.

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