Learning from a Dog

Recently I was conducting a series of focus groups for a new idea. At the start of a round of research, there was this wave of optimism on the client side. However, group after group of respondents from a range of target audiences rejected the idea.

In my career there have been occasions where an idea we were researching was a loser and somewhat affectionately termed a “dog.” If you work in the market research industry or in product development long enough, you will certainly see your share of them.

An Old Dog Can Teach You Some New Tricks

For those readers that work on the client side, hopefully you work in an environment that is supportive of learning.  When an idea does not work well, there is an opportunity to learn.  As the saying goes in tennis, “you often learn more from your losses.” A dud of an idea gives you an opportunity to keep an open mind, challenge your hypothesis, iterate, and provide a foundation for future success.

Keep An Open Mind

Sometimes when an idea flops we can quickly become negative.  I’ve sometimes seen teams place the blame on the research participants, saying things like “these people are dumb,” or “they just don’t get it.”  I’ve also seen where team quickly assume or believe, “this is just a dumb idea.” I believe it is best to try to keep an open mind in order to see if there is a nugget in the idea that can be polished into a gem.

It requires listening for an aspect of the idea that resonates with the target audience.

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do, doesn’t mean it’s useless.
– Thomas Edison

Challenge Your Hypothesis and Develop New Ones

When an idea does not resonate among a target audience of consumers, it could be due to either a faulty hypothesis or a poor articulation of an insight.

A mature development team will listen intently to the respondents, understand where their assumptions may be faulty and seek to understand their consumer.  Then, they can create new hypotheses based on a more accurate understanding of their target consumer.

As a researcher, I seek to understand the basis for my client’s hypotheses prior to the start of the research. When in a conversation with a respondent, I can ask the right questions in order to confirm or disprove the client’s hypotheses and ultimately build their understanding in a meaningful way.


Qualitative research to test new ideas or concepts tends to be exploratory in nature.  This allows for changing the concept or stimuli as new insights are uncovered during the research.  There is no reason to continue presenting the same idea when you know there is a more appealing benefit that could be tested or a better way to express the benefit to help the consumer understand the idea and see its relevance.

I have seen on numerous occasions where teams have been able to keep an open mind and use an iterative approach to build their understanding.  This has resulted in them refining the concepts for their new ideas to the point where they have a strong, testable proposition that consumers easily understand.

Provide a Foundation for Future Success

Keeping an open mind during research, even when an idea is not working well, can provide the insight for future success.

I conducted several focus group studies for the Prince of Persia video game title.  In working on the Two Thrones game, gamers liked the ability to parkour, do acrobatics and solve puzzles in the game; however, they were growing tired of the series and the repetitiveness of the gameplay.  The development team at Ubisoft listened to their consumer, understood the appealing gameplay elements of Prince of Persia and incorporated them into a new title, Assassin’s Creed.  This popular new title became one of the biggest brands in the company’s history.

So, the next time an idea you are working on looks like a dog, try to learn a new trick.

  • Keep an open mind
  • Challenge your ingoing hypothesis
  • Develop new hypotheses based on better understanding
  • Move on from ideas that miss the mark
  • Iterate during the research to improve your proposition
  • Capture insights that can sow the seeds for your next success!