By Oon Yeoh
Five years ago, I took on a two-year assignment as a senior researcher with a global telecommunications company that had opened up a regional research and innovation division in Cyberjaya.
Although most of the staff had “research” as part of their job description, there were two kinds of research going on there at the company. One was consumer market research, which entailed surveying the public to get their feedback on different issues and concepts.
The other entailed looking at new trends and developments in a certain field, for example mobile Internet. This is normally done by researching online materials as well as talking to industry people working in that particular field.
The former was conducted by researchers whose background was with consumer market research houses. I had a media background so searching for things online and talking to people on the ground was right up my alley.
From the research that we collected, we were expected to come up with new concepts that could be turned into actual services that the company could offer its customers. The consumer market research guys had a very conservative approach. They went with whatever feedback they got from the public.
Because my approach did not depend on public feedback, I adopted what could be called the “Steve Jobs” approach. The late Apple founder was famous for his disdain for focus groups or consumer market research, believing that when it comes to new products, consumers don’t really know what they want.
His thinking makes a lot of sense to me. If something is new or revolutionary, how can consumers possibly know whether they’d like it or not? The reality is that most of them cannot envision how it would work and probably would be negative about untested, new concepts.
Can you imagine what a typical focus group’s reaction to Twitter would be? “A microblog that allows only 140 characters per posting? What use is that?” would have probably been the response.
In fact, if you look at any completely new concept and imagine what the consumer response would have been prior to its launch, you would conclude that the response would be negative rather than positive. For example: “Tablet computer? Why would I have any need for tablet when I have a perfectly fine laptop!”
Yet, many companies still swear by focus groups and consumer market research. Why? A friend cynically suggested that focus groups are for those who don’t want to be blamed for making wrong decisions. Just blame the focus group instead!
Perhaps there’s some truth in that. And perhaps that is why so few companies are innovative. That is not to say that the Steve Jobs approach, which requires a knack for figuring out what the public might want, is something easy to do. If it was, the world would have more companies like Apple. But, if you look around, there are examples of people who have had success relying on their gut instinct rather than on focus groups.
Lim Kian Cheong was working for a telco when Apple’s App Store was launched in 2008. Sensing an opportunity to sell to the world, Lim started developing his own apps. He didn’t have the means to commission any focus groups or have any consumer market research done before creating his apps. He just built what he thought might sell.
Lim’s break came in late 2009 when he released iType2Go, an app that lets you see what’s in front of you as you type and walk. It puts the phone’s camera view directly behind the message that you are composing, thus allowing you to avoid bumping into obstacles ahead.
That app caught the attention of New York Times popular tech columnist, David Pogue, who tweeted about it at year’s end. Sales spiked immediately. Then, Pogue listed the app in his annual “Pogie Awards for the Year’s Best Tech Ideas” for 2009. Sales went through the roof. Lim quit his job and has been building apps ever since.
If we want to foster an innovation-based economy, we need more risk takers, people who are willing to go with what they believe in rather than relying purely or even mainly on what the public tells them. Most of the great ideas we have come to know and love weren’t born out of consumer market research. In fact, I can’t even think of one example which was.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant. He has written books on emerging technologies, entrepreneurship and social media.