Focus Groups and the XBOX360

It’s been said that the XBOX 360’s “Sonyness” is the result of focus-group design.

I think they used the wrong tool for the job–the focus group told them what consumers like right now: Sony.

But how is looking like their #1 competitor going to help XBOX?

Is this strategy, or a classic lesson of the evils of misused focus-groups?

you also have to take into consideration that there’s a subconcious dilemma involved with designing an xbox.

microsoft products can be found anywhere, from a typical US office to some village in a third world country.

on the other hand sony products have turned into products that exalt the user into a certain status outlook. that of sony. a well known japanese brand among electronic manufacturers all around the world.

another question that pops into mind is: do you often find an xbox in a village in a third world country? i doubt it. but would you find a sony walkman or a sony radio? most certainly you would.

so the focus group is probably just an excuse for something already analyzed and implemented.

i think microsoft sees the future of gaming at that level; mainly the philosophy that whoever can use internet or has access to it should also be able to use a gaming console. so they have sort of stolen the place of the sony radio in the third world village.

no wonder it looks like one of those cheap toys you find in a cracker jack box.

I should also mention that MS apparently consulted with MANY design firms on this project, which again points to groupthink.

yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

their idea of investment might not be something they wish to discuss openly, but it’s not that hard to see what they’re trying to pull off.

they also rely on their weight as a big software monopoly and since they know that it won’t last as long as they wish it would, they’re trying to grab the opportunities wherever they can find them.

one thing for sure. getting cute like this will only make it seem more obvious!

Confirmed-- I know of another firm that submitted, but was not chosen.

The funny thing about all the debates on the aesthetic is that it really has very little to do with why people will chose to buy an XBOX. If Microsoft wants to overtake Sony, they will need to gain enough converts to reach the “tipping point” of popularity, when they will explode in front. The main thing gamers are looking for is GOOD GAMES. If they get the best games first, they will win-- the shell is certainly a large portion on the product experience, but a small piece of what will put them on top.


great points. I mentioned it to point to the folly of relying on focus groups. Great for telling you what people want now, not so great for telling you what people want in 2 years. The important thing is to talk with consumers and learn about their lives to design products better suited for them, not to test weather something looks like a Sony. A bad marketing perversion of information gathering.


[quote="fueledbycoffee"The funny thing about all the debates on the aesthetic is that it really has very little to do with why people will chose to buy an XBOX[/quote]

I think that is correct. This thing could have looked like anything as long as the functionality and softwear components where there and it was small for the Asian market. And it seems the opportunity to do some ground breaking design was missed.

Not to fear Microsoft, it doesn’y look like Sony or Nintendo are doing anything groundbreaking either, though they are well resolved and nicely detailed and speced solutions. Nice work on making the product design component of these systems a comodity and a non issue.

A few thoughts:

  1. I don’t think MS necessarily fell into groupthink as much as the decision makers are conservative. This is MS after all…when did they ever take a chance? Not very often, that’s for sure.

  2. We all keep mentioning games as being the deciding factor on buying a system. Well, let’s look at history. The X Box 1 featured superior graphics and accesories to the PS2. It’s achille’s heel was that it was released after the PS2. I can’t remember the margin, but it was big enough that the PS2 managed to build a lead in number of titles released. That initial lead sustained the PS2 throughout its days.

If MS had wanted to crush Sony, maybe they should’ve released a pricey X Box 359 last year. Even though it wouldn’t have sold many units, it would have built a library of games. Then MS comes out with an Xbox 360 that (they would say in my world) has fewer options than the 359, but plays all the same games.

To sum up, with the PS3 and 360 being released close together it will be a crap shoot who wins. Personally I’m betting on them splitting the market share 49/49 with 2% buying a Nintendo. That parity will continue until either someone blinks, or someone takes a big risk.

Agreed WRT titles driving purchase intent. Don’t want to sidetrack here, but thought I’d mention the “killer titles” at product release that led to purchasing revolutions:

DVD Players: The Matrix (wasn’t this everyone’s first DVD?)
PS2: Gran Tourismo
XBOX: Halo

It seems to really help to have “the one killer title” to help push initial sales, perhaps even more-so than releasing several “great titles.”

Don’t want to stray off topic, but “The Matrix” is the movie that made DVD sales take off. It was the first to sell 1 million copies. At one point, it had sold over 3 times what the next closest title had…crazy. Oh, it was my first DVD too…

Lets talk about user/focus groups in general… Do they always know what they like? Do you really know what you like? Should designers care? I understand that there’s a market that is needed to be directed towards. To follow a specific group’s instincs/intuition would reduce any chance of providing a compelling new idea. Suprise is everything [well, a big part of it anyway]. If such groups were taking literally, we’d probably be dicussing the new FragXBOX here, not the 360. I don’t feel as though user research was the cause in this one. Does anyone have any real process info?

My experience of usergroups from researching for software design is that they don’t really give that much info on what user’s really need, it reflects what they think could be cool. Interviewing domain experts give much more reliable information.

Isn’t the thrust of this discussion that focus groups indeed did not lead to a good design?

As far as doing research with users goes, it’s disappointing to hear this same old story. The frustrating thing about this profession is that it looks “easy” (hey, you’re just talking to people) and everyone wants to conduct user research, so you do get people that simply ask what people want and dutifully record it.

That’s not the process. Ask questions (the right ones), listen to the answers, ask new questions based on what you heard, and listen to the answers. Then go away and infer and interpret and synthesize. It’s not data collection. Seek to understand why. Then design for what you learned, not what you heard.

it also depends on the product.

for instance if you are doing transportation, which also has a wide range, you want to find the true user, not someone who claims to be a user and gives you really off the criteria recommendations. a lot of people like to pretend they’re users of that particular category of the product and have experienced the problem/s involved and now want to improve it. but after you interview them you’ll find most of the things they say either has personal significance or does not apply at all to what the design intends to do.

i think it happens the same way in competitions too when companies set up a hypothetical situation and give the entrants some guidelines, they select a panel of judges some of whom may not even be interested in that category of design but accept to judge anyway.

they are indeed a good example of a focus group because they’re not only posing as potential customers or clients but actually are supposed to have credentials and experience dealing with that category of the product.

then when you see the results you notice they first select a group(s) of similar designs because that seems to be the mainstream or trend and then they pick from that group(s) one which better satisfies the guidelines.

this creates an illusion because the focus group/judges actually didn’t do anything on their own. they only chose what seemed to be a general idea common among designers.

does that make the design valid?

we don’t know. it’s a general rule in design that only when the product has entered the market we find out if that focus group or panel of judges made the right recommendations or chose a bad design.

but we can’t say that this is the best way or rather the only one to do design because we know that companies specially bigger ones do more than just hang around focus groups since it involves a lot of resources, time, and investment and if they risk it they might loose or damage not only those assets, but the brand itself.

so i rather put the focus group in the same range as a judging panel in a competition and i’m actually giving it a higher stance than what it is.

Thanks Steve for bringing some clarity once again into a rather blurry discussion about the perils, evils, excesses and uselessness of “research.”

I would only add that pure, user observation - i.e. without the filter of language - can often be more illuminating than even 100 interviews. From a process standpoint the trick to me lies in how to simultaneously observe someone’s behaviour while interviewing them. I always trust observed behaviour over reported behaviour - especially self-reported behaviour.

That said, in addition to what we have seen here about aesthetics and purchase drivers, I wonder if there is anyone here who can evaluate the new Xbox in terms of its experience of use?

Steve is dead on-- focus groups are not inherently bad, they provide a certain type of information that you can analyze to draw conclusions from. Think of the various research techniques as “experiements” that are all run via the “scientific method”-- all have their own causes of error and bias, and the only way to get “pure” data is to use many different methods of research to cross-check each other.

By the way, the latest issue of WIRED has an interesting article that characterized the new Xbox not so much as a new gaming console, but a “Trojan Horse” for Microsoft to invade people’s living rooms and pave the way for the all-in-one media center PC…

all in one pc concept was the latest trend in cebit. a lot of companies are now creating pc’s that are plug and play solutions for general use since they figured most users are not professionals and just want something for checking emails, chat, media, and internet news.

but that’s just the function. it has little to do with the design trying to look like sony.

Hmmmm…now that would have been be a cool marketing approach for XBox. Assuming it is true that it wouldn’t matter what an XBox 360 looks like MS or Sony could conceivably create a huge amount of hype surrounding their product by NOT showing what it looks like.

Package it with no product images. No press releases of final product shots. In fact, have 6 designs in the can that are the potential form factor keeping the true form factor in question.

Better yet, have 6 SKUs of the product that ships and the user randomly gets a design.

Afterall, we are assuming the product should sell based on its power and performance on screen. Use design in an “anti-design” manner?

Could be fun :wink:

OK, so what is going to happen a year from now, when XBox 360 has sold 1.5 Million units? What will the discussion be then?

The marketing group at MS will be laughing and turning their noses up at all of us for grousing about what this product looks like, no?

What is the barometer for successful design?

Exactly. What is it?