Vision vs. Focus Group

In today’s world, it is crucial for companies to listen to their customers. Give customers what they want, and you’ll be successful, the reasoning goes. Combine that with the economies of scale of mass production, and most manufacturers chase the same “average” audience. As a result, more and more products look and perform alike.

It used to be that instead of listening to their customers, companies decided what they thought met the customers’ needs. At first sight, that may seem like a patronizing approach. However, in a marketplace with ample competition, there is a positive side to this. With every company having a different vision, it leads to more choices. It also allows companies to innovate beyond the wildest dreams of their customers.

In the late 1950s, each European car company each had a different vision of the perfect high-end car.

For Mercedes-Benz, that meant swing axles and safety features such as the first crumble zones.

Lancia offered the first V6 engines. They balanced the front engine with the gearbox in the back for better weight distribution and handling.

Citroën believed in a radically different approach with front-wheel drive, hydropneumatic suspension and aerodynamic bodywork.

Their direct competitor Peugeot countered this with sturdy, but unadventurous designs.

Jaguar still stuck with a separate chassis, but offered a race-bred twin-cam engine and great value for money.

The list goes on. Some cars were fast, others spacious. Some handled well, others placed a stronger emphasis on comfort. Each car had a different feel and different features. They all looked different, too. Customers decided which of these visions for the perfect car matched theirs. There was real choice in the marketplace.

Today, most car companies rely on focus groups that tell them what the “average” customer wants. Then each company builds essentially the same car. In fact, J. D. Powers’ famous customer survey considers unusual design features “problems,” and deducts points for them like they would for a manufacturing defect! A New York Times review of a 2010 Subaru noted approvingly that the cars now had lost most of their individualistic features, adding: “One might ask why it took so long to go mainstream.”

It’s the same in the bicycle world. All the big bike companies define the marketplace in the same categories: racing, cyclocross, hybrid/city, cross-country, downhill… Often, the only difference between the competing bikes are the stickers on the down tube. Compare the three “performance road” bikes below, from Specialized, Trek and Giant…

Carbon fiber, sloping top tube, straight fork blades, 23 mm tires. Is there no other way to make a performance bike?

Component makers are the same way: Every “road” group features brake-shift levers, 10- or 11-speed drivetrains and dual-pivot brakes. Everybody is chasing the same “average” customer – the “low-hanging fruit,” as Shozaburo Shimano once called it in an interview in the Rivendell Reader. Unfortunately, that narrows the choices for the rest of us.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a company offered a group with downtube shift levers, a 5-speed drivetrain and centerpull brakes? If they offered a low-trail Allroad bike with wide tires, but otherwise equipped like a racing bike? Or if they offered fenders, lights and racks on a high-end randonneur bike, rather than only on relatively inexpensive city bikes?

At Compass Bicycles, we appreciate our customers’ feedback. We love to hear good ideas. We evaluate them carefully and adopt them if they have merit. But we don’t substitute opinion polls for research and careful product design.

Our products reflect our vision of how we like to ride. If you share that vision, you’ll like our products. And if you are looking to equip a carbon-fiber racing bike with all-black 700C x 23 mm tires, you will be able to find suitable components elsewhere.

Acknowledgment: The illustration at the top of this post is by Daniel Rebour.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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28 Responses to Vision vs. Focus Group

  1. Steve Park says:

    It baffles me that high-end road groups only offer cassettes starting with a 11T or 12T cog and pair that with a 50/34 as the everyman rider setup. There just aren’t that many sensible gear combinations for a spinner like myself. To get better ratios, one has to buy a heavy/ugly low end group or piece together a group from boutique parts. Partially excepting SRAM Apex, Shirampagnolo is missing an under served market in this regard.

  2. Tom Campbell says:

    Early on, Rivendell (Grant) shunned indexing, prior to supply issues. Things change. At one point I became too large for mainstream road bikes. My large body and needs were the same, steel ride, fatter than racer tires and the “obsolete” number of spokes. Riding on/off road, push-push is out these days due to arthritis, in favor of the same old bar ends and down tube shifters that have served me well; with single speed and fat tires for the woods. Riding for the sheer pleasure of riding, regardless of speed beats chasing trends anytime. My bikes are friends, and shouldn’t have to be replaced every few years. I’d like to think we all improve together. Many thanks for carrying on the flame.

  3. Bubba says:

    Excellent observations, Jan. I agree that honestly offering a product that you believe in and that isn’t offered elsewhere is a great service to us, the cycling community, and I applaud it. I don’t always buy your products, but I am always appreciative of the choice it provides.

    There are several very small frame design operations that source frames from Taiwan that are very affordable, and presumably of an appropriately reasonable quality. Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes Station, California is one. Black Mountain offers a cross frame with super wide clearance, and a road frame that takes 700x32s without fenders and 28s with fenders. He’s a one-man-shop. It made me wonder, will Compass ever offer a ~$600 – $1000 frameset that is designed to your liking, is competently manufactured, and saves $$$ on the cosmetic details? It seems that is quite possible these days, and would be welcomed by those that have faith in the designs, but cannot afford a M.A.P. (or similar), don’t want to wait 3+ years for a custom, and don’t want to search the second hand market for a classic.

    • Greg says:

      Agreed.

      It is also interesting to note that time and again, it has been shown that consumers in ‘focus groups’ tend to tell the data gatherers what they think said data gatherers want to hear, rather than what they actually think about the product, so the process is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the end….

      • GuitarSlinger says:

        Yet if its truly something different and massively functional you’re wanting and can get your head around a design done more for Function than Form have a look at the offerings from Moulton . Outside the box . Multi use ( most models ) as well as more efficient and comfortable than any diamond frame made

        Again , apologies if this sounds like an Ad …. its not

        + 1 for the article Jan

        Homogenous stinks !

    • Nick says:

      I second this: a production rando frame from Compass bicycles, maybe with integrated lighting since no production frame I know of offers that.

  4. valsidalv niksul says:

    In the late 1950s, all race bikes looked alike, just as they do now; all randonneuring bikes looked alike, as they do now; and all city bikes looked pretty much alike, again, just as they do now. Each of those groups of bikes looked quite distinct from one another back then — and they still do. Also, market for low-trail Allroad bike with wide tires, but otherwise equipped like a racing bikes is fairly small and is ably filled by custom builders.

    • Bob says:

      Sorry, I beg to differ. It was easy to differentiate a Cinelli from a Masi or Bianchi, even if they were all stripped to bare metal. Each builder had his own distinctive features. Most race bikes did use basically the same components, but there was still some variation that you can spot in pictures from the period.

      • In the late 1950s, you had many choices in components. Sidepull and centerpull brakes. Parallelogram derailleurs from Campagnolo. Plunger-types from Simplex and Huret. Screw-actuation from Cyclo. Hubs with cups and cone (Campagnolo etc.) or cartridge bearings (Maxi-Car). Cranks with large and small bolt-circle diameters, in steel and aluminum. Stems made from steel and aluminum.

  5. WFSTEKL says:

    When I began racing in earnest in the early 80’s my perception was that all top end road machines looked alike. I could not distinguish between a Colnago, Guerciotti, De Rosa, Basso etc. To my mind, they were all good, classic road machines and it was color or cost that separated them. I just assumed that they each received the same build quality standards. I, of course, was wrong. They may have looked the same, but they were not all built the same. I think that this conclusion is the same today. It is easy to view a bunch of compact carbon road machines and assume that they are all the same. They, of course, are not.

  6. WFSTEKL says:

    I would like to add that certainly there were some minor design and aesthetic differences that separated the machines I mentioned above. Lugs, seatstay attachments and fork crowns to name a few. However, they were all primarily Columbus SL tubes and the geometry was nearly identical. Throw a leg over a Colnago, or Guerciotti, close your eyes (well not really) and give them a spin and you would be hard pressed to tell them apart.

  7. Martin says:

    Two mantras from consultants:

    1. Best practices.
    2. Think outside the box.

    But they tend to actually ignore #2, because most consultants shouldn’t be consulting. So the mediocre, run-of-the-mill, average (if you will) consultant harps on “best practices”, because they think they can “measure” those, but they know they cannot measure “thinking”, especially outside the box. So … even the consulting and top management hierarchy stays inside the box.

    The third thing that screws up everything is the notion that “you’ve got to grow or die”, and the seemingly quickest way to grow is to get the amorphous average to buy your product(s).

    Put another brick in the wall, please.

  8. Evan says:

    Hear, hear! Jan, might you put this manifesto somewhere on your site for Compass Bicycles?

    Here’s what Steve Jobs said about focus groups (and about groupthink in general): “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

  9. Ted says:

    Darn, somebody beat me to the Steve Jobs connection. I’ll just add that, if Steve Jobs ran Apple by focus groups, the iPhone and iPad would not have happened. Which makes me think that it’s possible electronic-shifting over 11 cogs isn’t necessarily the result of focus group-driven marketing. Maybe the folks at Shimano really believe it’s an improvement and the world will beat a path to their door. Given their success over the decades, who are we to argue?

    Another great lesson from Jobs – when the sales and marketing people take over running the company from the engineers, that’s when the company starts to die.

  10. Paul Glassen says:

    It surprises me a little to hear it said that bikes were alike in the past. Surely many of you, or at least some of you, are old enough to remember when the ceilings of quality bikes shops were decorated with bare frames. You bought a frame and built it up with an eclectic collection of parts, from your own stores and maybe, if you could afford it and your tastes weren’t too eccentric, from the components of a gruppo. Then, over the years you rode that bike it evloved until a few years later it had accumulated an even more unique build, one specific to its rider and his or her use. That’s what made it such fun to encounter a new rider and his bike; scoping out the rider’s unique choice of frame and collection of equipement.

    Re: gear ratios and cassettes; many people I ride with have 8, 9, or even 10 cogs, as well as 3 chainrings. I ask them if they find themselves shifting more than one step at a time. They usually say, yes, often. That makes me think they have more gear selections than they need. But, I haven’t been spoiled. I still ride only five and six cog equipped bikes. Yes, friction shifting. Oh, and a 47 year old four speed Sturmey-Archer fitted as original specification on my Moulton.

  11. Conrad says:

    I’m not an auto enthusiast but I noticed the other day that a newer Jaguar was hard to distinguish from a Hyundai at first glance. I wonder how much of this is because of focus groups and how much of it is a manufacturer using marketing to try and sell dubious designs that are a lot cheaper to make. The way I see it- if a manufacturer has to answer to a board on a quarterly basis, profit is going to trump intelligent design every time. An independent builder is free to do anything if someone is willing to pay for it.

  12. Harald says:

    I’m still trying to figure out where exactly the problem is. Yes, the big manufacturers’ products share a number of features and produce for the big markets. I’m somewhat suspicious of claims that in ye olde days that was much different.

    At the same time, the variety and innovation you ask for does exist. Nowdays you can choose between a Rohloff 14-speed IGH, the NuVinci continuous variable hub, fixed gear 3 speed hubs from Sturmey Archer, and soon the 18-speed Pinion system. That sure looks like more variety than the IGHs and derailleur systems of the past. Or think brakes: you can buy cantis, linear pull, dual pivot, hydraulic disc, mechanical disc, or Magura hydraulic rim brakes. And what about the LED revolution in lighting and dynohubs?

    So overall, I think to claim that “choice for all of us” are more limited is plain wrong. Yes, you might not be able to buy new 5-speed freewheels and derailleurs, and if you insist on buying only from the big-3 your choices will be limited. But otherwise there’s more stuff to choose from out there than ever before. And I don’t think anybody with a vision (like you/Compass) is being stopped from following that vision and creating new products. And if they’re popular enough, the big manufacturers will follow (see: disc brakes with brifters).

    Sorry for the rant.

    • You are right, fortunately, the bike world still has a lot of visionaries, especially at smaller component makers. Among bike makers – small custom builders excepted – there seem to be fewer visionaries and more people following a tried-and-true recipe.

      My main point was outlining two competing ways of doing things: Vision vs. Focus Group. Each has its implications.

    • Matthew J says:

      If you have doubts that there was not much difference among big makes in ‘Ye Olde Days’, I suggest you look at pictures of 1960s era Raleighs, Schwinns, and Motobecanes.

    • Tom Campbell says:

      When the big guys pick up all the ideas and run with them, the innovative will just have to come up with more new ideas which will be unique and costly, until they become mainstream and we’re all buying them at Target. The variety of stuff out there is way beyond what’s ever been in the marketplace before, and the beauty of it is that people are buying it and using it. The sheer number of riders out there for all kinds of reasons are allowing the smaller manufacturers a chance to thrive.

  13. msrw says:

    Jan, apologies for digressing from this interesting discussion, but congratulations on the review and superb presentation of The Competition Bicycle in the Wall Street Journal today.

  14. azorch says:

    Jan, you’ve hit on precisely what I’ve been preaching for years – and this concept continues to prove to be elusive for just about anyone engaged in any form of marketing: an inability to distinguish between “want” and “need.” (Funny – and so prophetic, really! – how the two very, very different words seem to get used interchangeably!) And sadly, this trend seems to mark a departure from true innovation for the vast majority of product development; even many of our most truly “innovative” thinkers are really trying to simply veer the market place in their direction, skewing the homogeneity in one very slightly new direction or another, capturing as large an audience as possible. Few seem to be attracted to the small market appeal that is at the heart of generating really new and/or customized development. There is a demand, but our ideal seems to be oriented toward the largest mass market/smallest variety because differences mean more stock, more dies, more variables… all of which affect the bottom line. Small wonder that boutique operations and specialty product lines have such a tough row to hoe.

  15. Nick says:

    Consider the analogous situation in any of the arts, like music, film or theatre: the big three (car companies or bike companies) are equivalent to the major film studios and record producers who churn out the same-old from cookie-cutter moulds. The small, innovative companies are like the independent playwrights and composers whose work is often ignored and despised until the person dies and is post-humously recognized as a genius.

    Just because an artist is innovative doesn’t mean there will be an imaginative, receptive audience. Most people’s transport choices are as creative as their music tastes.

    Focus groups are a terrible way to make art and a terrible way to innovate.

  16. Harry Major says:

    The production of cycle equipment has for (at least) the last forty years been driven by pros, not enthusiasts. That is to say innovation has been about producing equipment for professional racers and not enthusiasts. This was necessary, both because the enough cosumers emulated pros and followed the sport (like football fans) but also because there was no accesible means to gather the opinions of the public for a company as huge and far away as say Shimano. The focus group is a crude and ineffective 20th century way for doing so. And as you note it doesn’t work. However after the rise of the internet and the power of “search” and blogs, the mass-market falls apart, the new Mass-Niches raises new demands, for producers to accept that one size fits all doesn’t fit anymore.

    No longer is it profitable to ignore what your customers are saying (see Jeff Jarvis’s account of Dell Hell – http://www.buzzmachine.blogspot.com ), instead to follow Jarvis’ first law, give your customers control and they will use it wiseley. That is not to say democracy by design, but instead open up the design process, do away with secrets and opacity. Publish intentions and innovations so the knowledgeable and the motivated out there can input. e.g. Shimano say they are making a new rim, and its going to come in these hole drillings. If customers say this rim looks great, but why not do it 40H to work with X, then Shimano should, not just because people want it, but because they can see a demand for the product.

    The point I am making, is Vision Vs Focus group is a binary way of looking at a more interesting question of collaboration and customer input in the bicycle industry. The mass of niches is why so many little companies doing little things can succeed. Do what you do best and link to the rest (again to quote Jarvis). If the big three could recognise the mass of niches and not the mass market, and could find ways to open up and be human, then and only then will they make products that offer more variety then they do now.

    • Harry Major says:

      and its worth noting that this blog does those things…. It sees more than a mass market in cycling. Its relatively open, it speaks in a human voice (that is it doesn’t have a party line, and people speak with their names) and through these comments it encourages conversation and contribution. It is by its nature public. What if Shimano had a blog, where its staff and its designers wrote on it in their own human voices, and invited comments. It could be magnificent.

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