My answer to How can you understand the demand for services and products in any small business?
Answer by Ken Larson:
By understanding the true essence of market research. The best recent article I have seen on the subject is one by Erika Hall.
WHAT RESEARCH ISN’T
“Research is not about whether people “like” or don’t like something. No business should ever use the word “like.” Like is not a design word and has nothing to do with any business goal. It’s just a reported mental attitude with no necessary connection to behavior. (Same thing with “hate”: I may hate The Newsroom, but I still watch it. Why? The better to hate it.)
In market research, this is known as the difference between “declared preference” — the fruit of focus groups — and “revealed preference” or reality.
Yet focus groups are not research; they’re research theater. They tell us very little about how real people behave in the real world. The brilliant sociologist and father of focus groups Robert K. Merton later lamented their misuse in replacing research: “Even when the subjects are well selected, focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched.”
When the research focuses on what people actually do (watch cat videos) rather than what they wish they did (produce cinema-quality home movies) it actually expands possibilities. But a common concern and excuse for not doing research is that it will limit creative possibilities to only those articulated by the target users, leaving designers devising a faster horse (lame) rather than a flying car (rad).
WHAT RESEARCH IS
Clearly, our beliefs around failure and misconceptions around what research is may have stopped people from doing it. But research, especially applied research, isn’t more effective when it’s a big, complex process.
Applied research is merely a set of activities (ideally somewhat organized) that help businesses gather the additional information they need to achieve a goal. The amount, type, and duration of those activities can vary wildly, and that’s OK.
There is absolutely no right amount of — or rigid process for — research except what’s right given one’s goals and resources at a particular time. Someone can take two days, two weeks, or even two years depending on the scope of work and how much is both possible and useful to learn in advance.
Focus groups are not research; they’re research theater.
The key is to be honest about how much we really know.
We need to identify our most critical assumptions, and then decide how to validate them. For example, a common assumption is that the organization — given its structure and business model — is capable of delivering the service the entrepreneur envisions.
An even more common, fundamental assumption in any design is that the problem the entrepreneur (and by entrepreneur I mean both at startups and inside large organizations) has decided to solve is a real problem — and one where potential users will value having a new solution.
Maybe knocking out a prototype or building a company is the fastest, cheapest way to learn. But often it’s not. Sure, a prototype can tell us if the user understands the potential solution — but if it’s solving a problem no one has, why bother building it in the first place?”
She is the co-founder of, a San Francisco-based interactive design consultancy and publishers of Evening Edition. Hall co-hosts “Running from the Law,” a weekly podcast on business law and endurance fitness — part of the , which includes The Talk Show by John Gruber among others. Hall is also behind the corporate jargon site ”