Great point about the focus groups, Steve. I was wondering, though, how you were able to uncover exactly what people wanted.
Focus groups, used properly, are actually one way to do that. You might, for example, get people to talk about their experience with some task. That’ll get at the existing systems, whether they’re working or not. But it’ll also likely get at things that are outside the current systems. And addressing all that can help you come up with some really innovative ideas. In other words, ask them what their problems are (whether that’s with the systems they use currently or has absolutely nothing to do with those). Don’t ask them for solutions. Coming up with those is your job.
Just to make this a little concrete, I worked on a project once where my team was tasked with completely redesigning the mortgage application process. As part of that effort, we put together some focus groups with people who had just been through that process – good, bad, indifferent, with our company, with other companies, mostly online, mostly offline … The pain points came up quickly, easily, and in great volume. Further, many of these were not being addressed by anyone else out there. They typically had to do with things like communications, and paperwork, and motivation – and not necessarily with the systems these people worked with. The solutions we came up with were rather proprietary, so I really shouldn’t share them here. Suffice it to say, though, they were pretty darn good. And I’m not sure we would ever have come up with them on our own.
Now, an even better way to generate ideas is through ethnography. That’s just a fancy way to say “field study,” and all that involves is watching people complete their own tasks in their own environment. In the session itself, you should concentrate on observing, simply capturing all the reality that happens right in front of your eyes (there’ll be plenty). Later, you can analyze all that data ‘til the cows come home. Once again, though, what you’ll be looking for primarily are the pain points, the gaps – along with creative ways to address them.
Does Apple do something like that? I do know that they love their genius designer paradigm. So, maybe they have some genius way to get at those user pain points as well. I also know that they like to design for themselves. And seeing that iPhones and iPads and so on are meant for pretty much everyone, they can probably get away with that. You and I though – with our specialized audiences who we may or may not have anything in common with – may not be so lucky. Finally, I do know that Apple is extremely secretive – heck, even paranoid. So, we may never actually know. Anyway, unless you’re one of those Apple geniuses yourself, I would definitely recommend some of that upfront research – whether a focus group, field study, or what have you.