Role Of Focus Groups in Innovation

Developing Concepts and Innovation

by Facilitators Adam Hansen, Christine Haskins and Cynthia Ryan

Too many companies still start with focus groups in an effort to understand their target consumers. While focus groups continue to have their place in innovation, it’s critical to understand that their place is at the end of concept development, not the beginning.

While focus groups continue to have their place, it’s critical to understand that their place is at the end of concept development, not the beginning.

We’ve likely all had the frustrating experience of watching a table of respondents quickly become ensnared in groupthink—becoming less articulate, less insightful, and less helpful. Every moderator has experienced the agony of waiting in vain after asking, “And what would make this idea better for you?” Simply said, focus groups are no place to hunt for new ideas. 

Creation Before Evaluation

First, let’s take a step back and examine the role of early concept development. What are we trying to achieve exactly with that fresh new output from an ideation session? At this point, it’s imperative to remember: learning is key in the front end of innovation. It’s erroneous to foist something like final commercialization concerns onto nascent concepts. The standard to adhere to at this stage is giving priority to the discovery process to help address the biggest risks in a given area—not just the risks attached to a specific concept. 

Think of concepts at this phase as learning delivery vehicles, not short-list launch candidates. This is a time for Creation—and breakthrough innovation comes when you see just how far you can go, then adjust to find the sweet spot. To use the metaphor of fishing, it’s easier to find where the fish are biting if you throw the line out far—then slowly reel it back in until you get some nibbles. In our experience, it’s better to push ideas way out (way beyond where you know you’ll ultimately land), so you can be sure you’re not leaving fantastic new stuff on the table. One question to ask is, “How far isn’t far enough right now?” The answers to that type of question will provide the richest ideas to push forward into concept development. 

Just as every project needs time to Create, it needs ample opportunity to Evaluate. But because the work of Creation is different from Evaluation, it’s imperative to bring in those equal to the task. The question isn’t one of “either/or” but actually “when.”

 Marketers clearly need both types of groups, but for different reasons:

  • For Creation, it’s often helpful to bring in a group with “intra-diversity.” These types of groups have greater idea pliability, low associative barriers to allow for divergent thinking, and the ability to use different perspectives to generate lots of different ideas.
  • For Evaluation, a group with “inter-diversity,” generally pulled from the identified Target (such as a focus group), can provide learning on what’s resonating in concepts—as well as ferret out additional challenges to drive even greater relevance. 

Consider the design forces at play in a typical focus group facility: an official-looking conference table, an imposing two-way mirror lining all or most of one wall, and a highly structured discussion plan. Why, it’s the same context people face in a police interrogation room.

 Another often overlooked factor that comes into play with a group’s ability to Create vs. Evaluate is their environment. Consider the design forces at play in a typical focus group facility: an official-looking conference table, an imposing two-way mirror lining all or most of one wall, and a highly structured discussion plan. Why, it’s the same context people face in a police interrogation room. Obviously, the deck is already cognitively stacked against free exploration in Creation. Creation requires a more relaxed environment, both physically and methodologically. We lose the table. We orient the team differently. We break things up with color and toys—all in the effort to change things up, and provide space for Creation to work. 

Looking beyond environment, there are other challenges typical Evaluative group scenarios face. Much of them center on the realities of working with a group of untrained consumers.

  • Consumers are WIRED to find the negative. It is actually an evolutionary trait that we are trained to find the problems, threats and challenges around us. This is furthered through the education process where even kindergarteners are asked to find the item that “doesn’t fit.” So when consumers are exposed to new ideas, they often turn to the component that has them say, “Yes, but….”
  • Consumers respond to ideas differently when they are alone vs. with other people. It has been proven that consumers are more receptive to ideas when responding alone—and less so when they’re in a group. In groups, it is less risky to talk about what you don’t like, or why something won’t work, than put your neck out there and talk about why you love an idea—only to have everyone disagree with you later.
  • Regular consumers live in the NOW—they can’t project what the world will be like in 3-5 years. In the world of NOW, stores look a certain way, items are bought in a certain way, and people receive information in a certain way. Therefore, an idea that you project to fit with future trends and shopper habits may not be accepted by today’s consumers.  

So what can be done to avoid a scenario that leaves you with 8 respondents, 5 opinions and 0 suggestions for improvement?

  •  First, use your gut and never allow a small group of consumers to have the final say. If you think the idea has strong potential, take the feedback you hear to optimize the concept and keep moving forward. 
  • When working with more future-oriented ideas, find ways to test them with more forward-thinking consumers. 
  • Make sure your moderator is spending enough time on having the consumers talk about what IS working in the ideas—and make the consumers feel safe in expressing their acceptance. This takes encouragement, timing and a lot of balanced work to make sure that the team is getting to hear what is working ALONG with what is not. 
  • Finally, consider not using focus groups at all. Try using a group of panelists who are trained in creative processes—and mindset—to optimized ideas (even in their initial stages).

Trained consumers afford the unique ability to Evaluate while also:

  • Articulating their behaviors, needs, desired experiences, feelings and insights.
  • Thinking laterally (using analogies/metaphors, borrowing from other categories/worlds, etc.).
  • Seeing what does not exist and creating it.
  • Seeing lots of possibilities and perspectives.
  • Working well with a team, and building off of the ideas and perspectives of others. 


Change doesn’t have to stop here. Ending the affair with focus groups may be the perfect time to provide creativity training for your team, as well. Going into your next innovation endeavor with a team that is well-versed in creative mindset, consumer co-creation, and assumption busting will be a refreshingly effective new experience that can stretch your thinking even further.

Where does that leave you when it comes to consumer research? Getting the most out of a traditional focus group should not include an expectation of new ideas. Focus groups are good for reactions—not ideation. If you’re looking for a gut check, focus groups are extremely helpful. If you are trying to push boundaries to drive both uniqueness and relevance, then look to consumers who can build on ideas (not just opine).

By understanding the distinction between consumers who can Create and Evaluate, you can avoid disappointment and make the most of both kinds of consumer input.

Learn About Our  Creative Consumers Associates

Adam Hansen

Adam Hansen is co-author of the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward," and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go – an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies to incorporate the voice of the consumer in ideation and concept development.