Blink On

25 Jun 2005|Darrel Rhea

Recently Ed Batista and I traded emails on Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink – specifically Gladwell’s positioning of focus groups as a “a tax on revolutionary ideas.” Batista asked my take on Gladwell’s comment on focus groups as being detrimental to innovation. My reply was that market research has already evolved beyond where Malcolm is talking about it. Focus groups are an easy target because they are misused and over used. There will be 950,000 focus groups conducted in the world this year, and yes, some real atrocities will result from some misapplications of a perfectly good methodology. But that is only one method used in research, and there are plenty of others that do a great job of informing designers and the design process. Cheskin’s been making speeches about this since the early 80’s.

Contrary to Ed’s POV, Malcolm doesn’t pose a stiff challenge to traditional techniques. What he posed instead is a challenge to the mindless application of one specific technique by clients who demand focus groups – and an industry of researchers who don’t know better. The reality is we evolved a highly sophisticated design research practice decades ago, using ethnography and a host of other tools proven to be effective and fully endorsed by design innovators.

You don’t use focus groups to evaluate revolutionary ideas. They can provide context for them. They can facilitate the generation of them. This is old news now getting broad exposure, but better late than never. That’s Gladwell’s welcomed contribution.

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