A focus group of one

Seven days ago, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died at 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Apple fans across the world showed love and support for the man, the brand, and his family, often through a medium that Jobs himself was responsible either for creating or for promoting.

I was down on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue on Sunday to one, buy a suit for interviewing, and two, shoot some photos for photojournalism, and came across an Apple Store covered in multi-colored Post-Its with messages for Jobs and his family.  And one-by-one people walked up, left a message on the wall or an apple on the ground, snapped a photo with their iPhone, and went on their way.

Jobs was not a fan of focus groups, audience research or user testing.  I am also not a fan of those things.  He believed that often with groundbreaking technology people had no idea what they wanted until you told them what was possible.  He was, among other things, an excellent salesman of the possible.

I, on the other hand, simply do not like conducting these interviews.  It’s not that I don’t see their value, although I do challenge the audience Kool-aid that says that we should simply ask people what they want and then give it to them.

In journalism school, it is expected that students inherently know how to talk to people about a product that they are working on.  They’re supposed to know exactly how to express a sense of empathy and immediately build a rapport with random strangers who the journalists are supposed to miraculously find on street corners and in coffee shops and convince to dedicate 20 minutes of their lives to answering a journalist’s prying questions about their lives.  Professors and administrators do not seem to see that there is a difference between this type of interviewing and interviewing someone for a story.

Audience research is very, very good at finding out what people like and how they behave.  Unfortunately, even the first man who bought an iPad has only been using it for fewer than 2 years.  And his world of experience is limited to the type of apps and interactivity that a small group of developers has been able to dream up.  And of that very small group, only a very few of those are doing any sort of groundbreaking work, while the others are using their innovations to display content.  So, essentially, the ideas of a couple of men and women are the sum of iPad experiences that exist.  And asking an iPad user what they like can only encompass those ideas.

We can ask people to imagine what they would like, but they will still be limited to their experience of interacting with the device.  Even the truly visionary random man on the street might suggest something that we couldn’t possibly execute.

We’re warned about the dangers of the “focus group of one:” essentially using only your own experience to make decisions.  We’re especially warned about that in our class.  As a group of 13 girls and one boy, we have chosen to create a magazine for men.  As a group of 23 to 28-year-olds, we’ve chosen men age 35-55, which for most of us means neither our friends nor our fathers.

And so, if you need me on Saturday, I’ll be hanging out at a Starbucks in Skokie, stalking men with iPads and asking to see some ID.