Focus group participants at Gallery 114
For much of my life, I've been designing things for other people. As a kid, I drew ladies in gowns, designed board games and even designed and sold soft sculpture pins. My first career choice was designing costumes and from there I designed apparel for people with special needs. It wasn't until this new century, around 2000, that I realized there was a formalized process to understand if people would want those designs, but all along I was gathering feedback to know what to make more of or how to alter my designs.
For the last 12 years or so, my sewing machine was in mostly hibernation, but its siren call got loud enough this summer to bring me back. I started to design a line of coats and accessories out of polar fleece, the Northwest's favorite fabric. I'm a one woman shop, but I sewed up four sample coats and a range of accessories in short order, excited to get them manufactured and hopefully sold at craft markets and on Etsy. Before manufacturing a short run, I wanted to see - do people even like the designs? Do the coats fit? Are the scarf designs appealing?
It took about a week to put together a focus group. Because I have a wonderful Portland network, people showed up for the promise of a fun evening and some appetizers, and two lucky winners got to take home samples. An amazing colleague loaned me her beautiful gallery space, and we were off.
The evening was planned as a formal focus group (although I did break my own cardinal rule of researching your own designs) complete with a get to know you exercise, surveys and a frank conversation as a wrap up. It was rewarding to see others touch, use and try on the items, but it was their candid feedback, seeing the fit first-hand and discussing the emotions around apparel that was so valuable. Like all of you, I sit in my office, coming up with designs and ideas (if I like them, surely someone else will). But, this group proved, once again, that not everyone is like me in fit, taste or lifestyle.  
Although there were many take-aways, the biggest learning was that it is not time to manufacture! There is a fit issue that needs to be addressed. Even for this little company, that saved me thousands of dollars in materials and apparel that would have been wasted on items that don't fit right.
So, I encourage you, whether you are in a large company or small, to find the time and budget to gather consumer insights. Research spans from surveys to a small local focus group to multiple in home visits across the globe. Whatever size you have time and budget for, its value should not be ignored. As Mark Twain succinctly said, “supposing is good, finding out is better.”


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