Fewer people bought new homes last month, the latest sign that the struggling housing market won't rebound this year. (Reed Saxon/AP)

What do home buyers want?

For more than two decades, home builders have sought to answer this perplexing question by sifting through the information gleaned from focus groups. Typically, the people who participate are looking for a new home or have recently purchased one. The builders ask them questions and incorporate their responses into the making of the next subdivision. But the focus group input does not dramatically affect the sales, and the builders fume that “buyers are liars.”

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.

This type of research is rarely used to gather background information for construction projects, Eckersley said, because most architects and owners are unaware that it exists. But he did offer one practical example of how the ethnographer’s approach can work.

Intermountain Health Care Systems hired his firm, HumanCentered, in 2004 to observe the behavior of expectant mothers at its facility in the Salt Lake City area before its architects began to design a new hospital for mothers and infants nearby.

For 12 weeks, Eckersley’s team followed 15 expectant moms during their third trimester. It observed them at home with their families and during their visits to the hospital for ultrasounds, labor and postpartum treatment. Afterward, the researchers followed the moms at home for another month. (The team focused on non-clinical issues and did not observe medical procedures.)

In this case, Eckersley’s team found that neither the hospital nor the architects appreciated the differences between the expectant moms it was serving and the sick patients it treated elsewhere in the hospital. The expectant moms were celebrating an important life event, and the facilities that best served them needed to be set up differently, especially since the moms wanted family members to join them for important checkups.

In the ultrasound unit, for instance, the expectant moms wanted their husbands, children and mothers to be there. But the ultrasounds were administered in an area that was designed for the convenience of the clinicians, not the families, Eckersley said. The examining areas were small alcoves that could accommodate three people comfortably, not five or six. Even worse, there was no privacy.

Can elaborate computer simulations, full-scale models or ethnography methods be applied to the American home-building industry? The large, national home builders could absorb the cost because they are still selling thousands of houses each year, even in this down market. These big firms may complain that these novel approaches would be too costly, but so is building houses that no one wants to buy.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail or at katherinesalant.com.