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The Good and Bad of Steve Jobs’ Market Research Legacy

Posted by Doug Garnett September - 11 - 2011 - Sunday

Have you heard the “Jobs Excuse”? When someone introduces a bad idea with “well Steve Jobs says” or “…just like Apple…”. It’s an old name dropping game that hopes to make even horrid ideas sound good.

In the world of market research, we hear it most often through one popular quote from Mr. Jobs:

“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.” (BusinessWeek, May 1998)

The Good. You have to read this quote carefully because what it says is:

- Focus groups aren’t good places to design products.
- Only you know what’s possible thru technology
- People can’t project ahead to tell you what to build.

He is absolutely right. Far too often, focus groups are asked to answer things consumer participants don’t know and can’t imagine. It’s an exceptionally poor use of research.

In advertising, this type or research often asks consumers to decide the colors used in ads or to project what a finished ad might look like based on storyboards or sketches (it’s hard enough for experts to do that – much less consumers). In the extreme, it can even lead to asking consumers to design their ads – as ill considered as asking consumers to design products.

The real reason for these research abuses is to avoid responsibility for bad decisions in engineering, design, or marketing (“but focus groups said…”). But if you are letting focus group participants make your decisions then you will get what you deserve.

So, yes. What Steve Jobs said is absolutely correct.

The Bad. Unfortunately, nobody uses this quote for what it says – they use it for what they wish it said. And what they wish it said was “don’t use focus groups”.

I hear this lie regularly from agency types and creative teams who simply don’t like the answers they get from research. And I hear it from design teams who just want to be left alone to design the usual meaningless innovations that come from humanity-free engineering. So they invoke the name of Jobs to try to avoid research altogether.

Research and Innovation. In fact, research is an exceptionally strong tool for finding consumer realities that can make the difference between innovation success and failure. But you can’t use the kind of responsibility avoiding research I noted above. And, sadly, many researchers (especially those in the large firms) lack the unusual set of skills needed to work early in the innovation cycle.

But research creates the foundation for successful innovation:

- to learn about consumer lives so you can deliver the best human value.
- to learn about whether/how the innovations you have designed fit with humanity.
- to learn how to pull together the messages that will lead people to buy your innovation.
- to learn how communication changes as you move from the earliest buyers to mass markets.

(My Shelf Potato blog discusses cases where failure to communicate caused innovation to fail – or where communication rescued innovations that were sitting on the shelf and unloved.)

Jobs’ Research Legacy. I don’t claim to know what Jobs thinks – others might. But what he had said publicly, while usually perceptively true, has left behind a sad, mixed legacy.

And those who attempt to avoid research with the “Jobs excuse” should be identified for what they are: people who don’t want to find out how badly their product or advertising misses with the people who buy their products.

Postscript: I wrote this post just over 3 weeks prior to Steve Jobs’ death. The world will miss his brilliant innovations.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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