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Steve Jobs Didn’t Like Focus Groups. Why You Should.

By Neil Myers / Nov 10, 2014

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Steve Jobs reportedly hated focus groups. His famous quote …

“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 Jobs

… is often cited by tech companies who think of focus group research as out of date in the fast-paced tech world.

Was Jobs right? That depends. Taken literally, I agree with his quote. If the customer knew what the next big thing was, they would be CMO. It is neither their job, nor in their wheelhouse to design products. That’s your job.

But focus groups rarely ask such a broad question as “what do you want.” At their best, focus groups help marketers to understand what makes prospects and customers tick, and how they might react to something new.

Early in my career I attended a focus group for Peter Norton Computing. Norton was testing a new, product designed to be “Norton Utilities for Networks.” An important feature was the ability to manipulate the inner workings for network storage volumes to salvage valuable information from hard disks gone bad. That same feature for PCs made Norton Utilities the industry’s number one utility.

Not so fast. The focus groups hated the feature. Here is a quote from my original notes: “If you introduce a product with that feature I will make sure my company never buys another product from your company.”

Who knew?

As a result, that feature got the deep-six, other features gained prominence and the product went on to a very successful run.

Okay, so what would Steve Jobs have done? Well, here is an insightful anecdote. The original Mac had no arrow keys (nor a numeric keypad, for that matter). Why no arrow keys? Jobs felt users should use the mouse instead.

I wonder how that focus group would have gone. Here is a hint – Apple rushed out an auxiliary numeric keyboard (complete with arrow keys) months after the original Mac launched. I have to believe a focus group could have spotted that before the original Mac shipped.

If you start the right discussions with the right people, focus groups can be a valuable resource for any marketer. Next time I’ll share some thoughts about how best to do just that.