Not at all, said Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. The problem is the subject under discussion, not the truthfulness of the respondents.
It’s difficult for people to understand their relationship with their home, Ariely said. “We do things, but we are completely unaware of the environment around us, and we don’t understand its effects on our behavior and well being,” he said.
For instance, focus group participants may react in a positive way to a question about larger windows, but it’s likely they have no idea of the effects of a larger window opening until they see it in a model.
Michael Eckersley, a cognitive scientist and professor of design at the University of Kansas, offered a second reason that builders get skewed results from focus groups. The builders are asking people to answer questions in an unnatural setting amid a group of strangers, a situation in which most people are not candid.
Are there better ways for builders to elicit information? Yes.
Ariely said builders could get more-reliable feedback by creating a computerized “virtual reality” that buyers could study or by building a full-size mock-up. In his native Israel, some builders have engaged a firm that does exactly that. Inside a cavernous airplane hangar, the firm erects full-size plastic-foam models of each floor plan a builder offers. Prospective buyers are invited to walk through and change things they don’t like on the spot.
Afterward, Ariely said, “the people had a completely different experience and understanding of what the builder was selling.”
Eckersley suggested an entirely different approach: observing people where they live using the fieldwork techniques of an ethnographic anthropologist. Similar techniques are used by manufacturers, whether they make bathroom fixtures or cars, as they try to figure out the features their target audience most desires.
Eckersley, who heads an applied design research firm that does this kind of thing, said interviewing people in their homes, videotaping them in their daily routines and embedding a researcher there who will observe them for a day or two would provide useful information.
Unlike the question-and-answer format of a focus group, these modern-day ethnographers do not pose specific questions about the subject under consideration. Instead, they cover a variety of topics to figure out if the questions the clients want to pose are relevant. Sometimes, Eckersley said, the team finds that the clients are focused on X but the consumers are interested in Y. With these types of insights, manufacturers can redirect their designs or marketing, often saving millions of dollars.