The product team triumphantly returned from their customer focus tests. They previewed their soon-to-be-launched “Product X” to a select group of high profile customers. The surveys all showed positive comments and accolades.
Yet, Product X turned out to be a dud after release. What happened?
There are three basic psychological phenomena that need to be factored in for any Customer Focus Trial:
1. The Principle of Reciprocation
2. Demand Characteristics
3. The Hawthorne Effect
The Principle of Reciprocation
Robert Cialdini describes the Rule of Reciprocity in his book: “Influence: Science and Practice (2009)”. The reciprocation rule essentially states that if someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt. There is a strong impulse in people to repay gifts or favors with a gift of our own to them.
In a psychological experiment, a demand characteristic is a subtle cue that makes participants aware of what the researcher expects to find or how participants are expected to behave. Participants will often alter their behavior to conform to such expectations. So when a focus user gets enthusiastically greeted by a product team and told that they will be given an exclusive look at the greatest thing since sliced bread – how do we think the user will be inclined to answer questions?
The Hawthorne Effect
Beware also the Hawthorne effect, a well-documented phenomenon that affects many research experiments. It is the process where human subjects behave differently, at more diligent and loyal, and give a false positive result, simply because they are being studied.
Between 1924 to 1932, the Hawthorne Works company near Chicago commissioned studies to determine if the level of light within their building affected the productivity of the workers. Research showed that the level of light made no difference in productivity - the workers increased output whenever the amount of light was switched regardless of level. In fact, this effect occurred when any variable was manipulated. The researcher postulated that the workers increased output, simply because they were aware that they were under observation.
The logical conclusion was that the workers felt important because they were pleased to be singled out, and increased productivity as a result.
Understand the Cause of the Bias
Consider that you have invited your select group of customers to a nice location and treated them to coffee, lunch, etc. You may also be paying them for their time. The users feel somewhat obligated to reciprocate with compliments and a positive review. They see the apprehension in the product manager and the presence of upper management, e.g. the VP of Marketing. They do not want to dampen the enthusiasm of their hosts or the product team who are watching their every step and action. Negative feedback may be honest but may result in not being invited to the next exclusive product preview.
Understanding basic human psychological tendencies will help to minimize bias when you have product focus meetings.
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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