Focus groups suck, right? Bored people sitting in front of a mirror, delivering canned opinions on demand. Everyone from Silicon Valley to Amy Schumer pokes fun at them. But it wasn’t always this way: When focus groups started in the 1950s, they represented an exciting new way to probe the emotions and motivations underpinning human behavior. How did they get so staid and safe?
To better understand the madness of the focus group, I decided to do a bit of research on how it came to be.
The story begins in 1938, when a psychoanalyst named Ernest Dichter left Vienna to escape the Nazis and headed for the US. When he arrived in New York, he made an interesting career decision. Instead of helping individuals understand their problems, he decided to offer his psychoanalytic services to corporations.
One of Dichter's first clients was General Mills, which had a problem with its Betty Crocker cake mix. Its food scientists had formulated a dry mix that required only the addition of water. Once placed in the oven, it miraculously blossomed into instant cake. But after a good start, sales flattened. The executives were baffled: The product was more convenient. Why weren’t the housewives buying it?
Dichter gathered groups of women and put them through exercises derived from Freud’s methods of probing the unconscious, including free association and Rorschach tests. He explored their feelings about relationships and their role in the family. And then he started asking them about cake.
What he took away from these sessions was that cake was more than just a sweet baked product. It was loaded with sexual symbolism. He was particularly fascinated by the ritual of the wedding cake, which featured the husband taking a long knife and plunging it into the white cake.
His conclusions, like a good cake, were multilayered. First, the cake was symbolic of the wife’s relationship to the husband, and so she felt guilty making it by just adding some water to powder. Second, the sexually charged nature of the cake meant that it had associations with fertility, even childbirth.
Ernest Dichter and a Betty Crocker ad from the 1950s that anoints cake as the great unifier—almost as good as make-up sex.
His solution to these complex issues was simple: General Mills should remove the powdered egg from the formulation, and instead require housewives to add their own fresh eggs.
It’s hard to know whether the executives were swayed by Dichter’s Sexual Theory of Cake, or whether they liked the fact that removing the eggs would save money. Either way, they took his advice. And, sure enough, sales soared.
In the following decades, Dichter imitators turned his methodology into a hackneyed formula, and the focus group lost its way. We wondered if we could bring emotion and surprise back with a 21st-century reboot of the technique. Here are the five principles we followed:
Hiding in a dark room behind a two-way mirror distances you from the consumer. If you want to find out what makes people tick, get eye to eye with them in the room. If you find this uncomfortable, suck it up: Discomfort is a sign that you’re learning something.
The dynamic of “moderator and participant” creates an authority relationship in the room, which can lead to participants saying what they think they are “supposed” to say. Try having the questions served up differently—such as pulling them at random out of a jar. People will share more when they feel they’re having a natural conversation.
The original idea of focus groups was to create an environment in which people encouraged each other to share their feelings. Today’s sessions are often stiff and with the same amount of social interaction you’d expect from people doing jury service. So, do whatever you can to create a warm social environment. In our recent experiment, we started the session with 30 minutes of improv exercises, run by a trainer from Second City.
When Dichter ran focus groups, he would make all the interpretations and deliver a report to the client. These days, the client needs to feel some empathy themselves. The best way to achieve this is video, but an intrusive camera lens can cause people to clam up. We solved this by running interviews using a hidden-camera technique pioneered by the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (see below).
All the clever methods in the world won’t help if you don’t have the core goal in mind: understanding the motivations behind human behavior. We live in an age of data: We have more information than ever before that will tell us what people are up to. But the greatest inspiration comes when you can form theories about the why. Despite being more than a half century old, the focus group is still one of the best techniques for achieving this.
The Errol Morris–pioneered "Interrotron" puts interviewees at ease by giving them the impression they're speaking to another human, not a camera lens.
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