The first time I viewed a professional focus group I was impressed. We sat behind a mirror wall, were served great food and wine and watched business owners answer questions asked by a professional moderator. For a long while, I was in love with the concept: pay some money and get a glance into the future, read your potential users minds and build the perfect product that they will use for ever. If only it was so simple…

Later in life I understood that the most important thing to remember about any user feedback is that people don’t tell you what they think, they tell you what they think they think I was reminded about it while listening to another fantastic Freakonomics podcast  at the gym today. The topic was human herd behavior and the subject was an experiment in ads, targeted at reducing utility bills. You should read or listen to the whole thing, but the interesting part was that the only ad that actually worked, was the one that in focus groups with the same people failed miserably.

 The ad simply said:  “The majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy in their homes, please follow”. (But when asked in focus groups), they waved their hands at us when we asked them that question, “Oh come on I don’t care what my neighbors are doing. That’s not me.

The interesting part is the fact they didn’t lie. They thought of themselves as independent, uninfluenced by others or guided by their moral compass but they were not. They answered what they believed to be true, but acted based on their old habits and social norms.

The answer, of course, is not to stop talking with users. The answer is to stop asking them what they want. As I am constantly reminded by Ellen, all you can do is Just watch what they do, and try to learn from it. What do they complain about?  What takes really long? Which problem they always get back to?

The answer to “would you use this product?” or “how much do you need this feature?” will always be “yes” and “very”. We are programmed to always want more. But in reality, we act on very little. Focus on finding what sucks in the current state, and build something 10X better. If they use it, you got your answer.

PS- one form of user interview I found useful before is over a drink in a bar. Few glasses of wine and people start tell you what they really think, not what they want you to think they think…