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PHOTO: Andre Hunter

The focus group traces its origins back to the mid-1940s. Its death has been predicted many times, but inviting customers to participate in focus groups remains a common tactic to this day. Nevertheless, the value of the focus group remains questionable as multiple factors impact the integrity of the data. To understand what customers really want, there’s no replacement for understanding them as humans, and focus groups shouldn't be the only tool for doing so.

As Steve Jobs said, “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.” The downsides of focus groups often outweigh the perks. 

Focus Groups Have Their Place, But With Some Caveats

To be clear: focus groups have their time and place. People sometimes feel more comfortable divulging their thoughts in a group setting versus one-on-one interviews. Additionally, for community-based products and experiences, such as applications used for collaboration, focus groups may be an appropriate way to gather feedback, as it mimics the interactions they have with the product or experience itself. 

However, anyone who has moderated a focus group is familiar with the common scenario in which one or two individuals dominate the conversation, leaving others with little room to contribute their thoughts and thereby skewing the data. The well-documented phenomenon of groupthink also comes into play, causing focus groups to reach a consensus without considering alternatives. 

The pandemic has further complicated these challenges, as focus groups now must be conducted remotely. Groupthink and dominant participants are exacerbated in this scenario. Additionally, remote focus groups pose a host of technological problems, including poor Wi-Fi connectivity and participants’ unfamiliarity with the technology being used to host the event. Most importantly, it removes the in-person, human element of focus groups, and participants may be less inclined to share their thoughts in a virtual setting.

So how can companies get a picture of what their customers want without relying solely on in-person or remote focus groups? 

Here are tips and best practices:

Zero In on Behavioral Data

It’s no secret that self-reported data can be wildly inaccurate; there are usually incongruencies between what people say and what they actually do. For this reason, focusing on behavioral data is key to understanding what customers want. 

Instead of asking customers questions in a focus group, gather data on their actions to guide strategy and product development. Observe them in their own environments, look at data and analytics at scale, and leverage technology that provides insights into what customers are doing on your website, in your store, or on other relevant channels.

Examining behavioral data lets businesses gain an understanding of what their customers are doing and — most importantly — why they’re doing it. Based on this information, companies can design products or services that will closely align with customer needs.

Related Article: Why They Click: The Psychology of Your Audience

Don’t Forget to Ask 'Why' 

The full value of behavioral data can’t be realized without considering the human element. Smart business decisions are made possible not just by information on what customers are doing, but also their reasons for doing it.

This can only be achieved by creating a strategy that gives you a full, 360-degree view of your customer. Behavioral data around web traffic, conversion, or shopping cart size alone won’t cut it. Businesses must be able to answer questions like: Why are people coming to my website? Why are they using these specific search terms? Why are they dropping off on a certain page? Businesses can then use the answers to these questions to inform their experience design and strategy.

Related Article: To Understand Your Customer Data, Start Thinking Like a Psychologist

Shift to Less 'Traditional' Methods for Understanding Your Customers

Oftentimes, those responsible for CX operate in siloed teams, in many instances without any direct interactions with the customer. When they have a question, they pull in another team to run a focus group, and after four to six weeks, that team delivers the insight to the team. This results in a disconnected and fragmented understanding of the customer, as the team running the focus group is essentially playing a game of telephone with the team designing the experience.

When CX teams have direct access to customers they can better understand their needs, empathize with them and make customer-centric decisions. Traditional methods like focus groups are not the only way to achieve this. Instead, encourage team members to simply talk to customers so they can get to know them. Get familiar with their needs, their motivations, and observe them as they approach the problem your team or organization is trying to address. This can be done through quickly scheduled informal interviews, that don’t require a massive formal report and readout afterwards. 

By implementing the strategies above, companies can create amazing products based on the core needs of their customers, without being held back by the inaccuracies and inefficiencies of focus groups. 

Examining behavioral data, while also keeping the human element top-of-mind, is integral to building products that offer exceptional value and build brand loyalty.