Ecommerce product research – Why focus groups don’t work & what to do instead



I found myself in Melbourne, Australia, sitting behind a one-way glass, observing a group of 12 people gathered around a wooden table, scrutinising a metal drink can. This metal object was a prototype poised to disrupt the wine-in-a-can market (and if this one didn’t, then perhaps one of the other ten would).

This was an ecommerce product research focus group. At the time, I was employed in the innovation department of a large Australian company, tasked with developing new product concepts for our major beverage brand clients. I was pretty excited to be there and believed the concepts being put forward were great (I still do).

focus group

However, the setting was unusual. Considering that this product would be bought in a store or online, the environment we found ourselves in was more akin to a school classroom, complete with a teacher (the focus group moderator).

Alright, so the atmosphere didn’t mirror the future purchasing context of consumers. How about the interaction between the moderator and the participants? That was far from perfect as well. The moderator would present a prototype, provide some minimal context, then ask for initial impressions and some follow-up questions. Participants were hesitant to share their thoughts, often leading to one or two dominant voices in the room, quickly echoed by the rest. Disagreeing with others isn’t easy, and being in a focus group doesn’t change that.

Crowd psychology indicates that group dynamics can differ significantly from the actions and preferences of individuals when they are alone. Crowd psychology – Wikipedia

We had some female-oriented concepts (Rosé in a can), some male-oriented products (Shiraz in a can), and some that didn’t fall into either category. Acquiring representative data for of the entire market and its demographic makeup from the ten participants behind the one-way glass seemed a bit of a stretch.

That’s one way to spend $4,000 to $12,000 on ecommerce product research if you’re a larger company, and who am I to judge? Nonetheless, the experience has stayed with me.

I’m now going to outline the pros and cons of focus groups as they relate to ecommerce brands (from my perspective), then suggest a free alternative, followed by my vision of the ideal solution for this ‘new product research’ area (which, you guessed it, we have an app coming out for soon).

Why choose focus groups for ecommerce product research?

Let’s examine a few reasons why you might decide to run a focus group for new product development/research.

  • Speaking with customers is generally regarded as a great idea in ecommerce product research, SaaS, and start-ups. Although when your sample size is a 10 person focus group, it can be misleading. For example, insights from 10% of 10 people shouldn’t carry the same weight as 10% of 1000 people on your website.
  • A little bit pessimistic, but from an executive’s perspective at a larger company, being able to shrug your shoulders and say “the focus group liked it” can be a handy escape route.

The illusive perfect product

What to do instead?

One method I’ve encountered a few times is engaging an online community of your customers, primarily Facebook groups.

At first glance, it would still be subject to group dynamics that don’t represent the typical online store purchasing experience. However, I believe there’s a reduced ‘voices dominating the room’ effect. Also, it’s not the same user situation as your online storefront, but it is digital (which is much closer than focus groups).

The main advantage of this approach is that it’s almost guaranteed to involve your actual customers. These individuals appreciate and support your brand, spending real money on your products. Determining what these people like and how to create offerings that are a perfect fit for them is far more valuable than receiving feedback from a randomly sourced audience answering for a hypothetical situation.

Ranking products

A new approach for ecommerce product research

On a day-to-day basis, I manage a pre-order solution for Shopify stores called PreProduct. We primarily work with stores launching new products. I am passionate about the space, and the business is going well.

That said, I’ve held this opinion on focus groups for years. So, I couldn’t resist taking a shot at solving the problem. It’s also somewhat related to PreProduct, but focuses on the beginning of the new product cycle instead of the mid to end.

What would the perfect solution be and do?

  1. Something that takes the advantages of the Facebook Groups approach, but is even more store-native and representative of the buyer journey. It should:

    … Reside on your storefront, i.e. Ask the people who matter, when they’re in the setting that matters… your website.

  2. The Facebook groups approach is more representative of your customer base than a focus group, but it excludes a significant portion of your audience. You have to be into Facebook groups and be the type of person who has the time and inclination to hang out there.

    … Therefore, polling on your storefront makes sense, but the process of evaluating new products needs to be quick and convenient. If we want additional information from them, that’s fine, but let’s ask them that later. Getting a primary vote/score should be prioritised.

  3. The actual voting/ranking action needs to be as similar to a buying action as possible (without causing confusion).

    … We decided on a design that borrows visual cues from a collection page’s grid item. With the product image occupying a significant portion of the space, alongside a product title and an option to show benefits and descriptions.

  4. I don’t think people buy aspirational/lifestyle products that are a 7 out of 10, as such, we need some binary options here. Is it a ‘yes’ or a pass? Do you love it? If you love it, do you want us to email you when it’s available? We want to figure out if people will buy the product, so won’t be offering a typical sliding scale answer approach. Points on a scale can mean different things to different people.

    … There’s a digital online format that already does an excellent job with binary answers: dating apps. We’ve implemented a swipe-left/swipe-right interface, along with buttons for pass, no, love, and an email capture on the end screen.

  5. Lastly, it needs to be affordable and quick for merchants to create these product ‘pitches’ and start gathering votes, e.g. uploading a name and an image should be enough. We’re also implementing a way to easily use AI to generate new variant images via prompting, but that can wait for another time.


In conclusion, I hope the above has made you reconsider some of your assumptions about running ecommerce product research. If you think our approach sounds compelling, I’d love you to sign up for our early-access list below (the new app will be called Product Love)

DTC brand, Brooklinen was birthed from the frustration that a husband and wife had with the high prices of luxury-grade linen. Six years later and they run a highly successful online brand with passionate customers and have raised sixty million dollars in venture funding. After a while, customers were looking to Brooklinen for advice and curation not only for sheets, but for the rest of the bedroom as well. A privileged position to be in, but with a core competency in fabrics and a high standard for the products they put out; going too wide with their product offering didn’t seem wise. Instead, they did something unexpected… Spaces by Brooklinen launched nearly a year ago and is a user-friendly marketplace concept offering a highly curated assortment of home goods from like-minded partner brands, as well as independent designers and artisans. Selling partner products isn’t typical for a DTC brand, but the high calibre products chosen are completely on-brand for Brooklinen. Plus, they can now sell more to customers who are asking for products outside of their portfolio.


Opening a partner marketplace is obviously very ambitious and probably requires a large customer base. However, maybe you could partner with a handful of companies instead? Are there brands with a similar ethos, selling in your industry, but with non-competing products? This could increase your average order value and also introduce you to your partner’s following.

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Image Credit: Brooklinen

Direct-to-consumer cookware brand Great Jones, sells great looking chef-grade products at affordable prices. Co-founder, Sierra Tishgart, explains their cookware innovation strategy; “My pots and pans are highly visible design pieces in my home”, this insight of bringing great design to a fairly drab category, combined with lower pricing for professional quality has helped catapult Great Jones into the industry. Their range centres around Enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens and chef-grade skillets, using the same materials as high-end brands to ensure even distribution of heat during cooking. Instead of basing their market research on consumers, they focused their efforts on chefs. This approach helped them release a serious quality product and not just appear to be one.


Making an unattainable product affordable, whilst driving credibility through design is a strategy put to great effect by D2C brands such as Brooklinen and Away. Are their products in your industry usually reserved for professionals that you can now be sold at an accessible price point? With the ability to sell directly to consumers through your online store and avoid retailer margins, some of these traditionally higher-priced products may now be commercially viable at lower price points.

Ref1, Ref2

Great Jones

Image Credit: Grace Jones

Natural deodorant brand, Native (acquired by P&G in 2017) kickstarted ‘cleaner’ deodorant market trends, with the goal of making it easier to consume less harmful ingredients. “The personal care industry has been lazy in making sure its products are safe, and we’re not having it”. Native started out with a highly successful deodorant range, that manages to balance ‘healthy’ and ‘clean’ whilst still managing to capture the premium cues of an upmarket health product. With a passionate customer-base and authority in the space, they set their sights on expanding their offering to other items in the bathroom essentials space. Charcoal as an ingredient and process (charcoal filtering) has experienced huge growth in the past 5 years, with google search volume for ‘charcoal toothpaste’ increasing 1300% from 2016 to 2017. Native used this trend to supercharge their foray into the toothpaste category. By offering a new range of charcoal toothpaste to an existing customer base, they were able to stack the deck in their favour.


Finding an emerging trend that is congruent with your brand could help catapult your next product into the market. With the spoils being, easier press coverage, large volumes of search traffic and other early mover advantages. Are there products that are used in the same customer ritual that you currently cater to? You could research possible opportunities through influential blogs, Google trends or customer interviews. As long as the new product fits in with your brand, this process could open up a whole new market for your business.

Ref1, Ref2

Native Toothpaste

Image Credit: Native

Dog-care brand, Bark has developed a new purpose-lead product range of dog food. Not only do Bark give partial proceeds to dog charities (a cause that is near certain to be close to their customer’s hearts). They have also centred each variant around an American city or state, with proceeds going to that area’s dog charity. Not only is this an opportunity to speak to customers in a more focused way, it also offers great inspiration for flavours and packaging design.


Letting a customer support local, whilst giving to a cause close to their hearts is very compelling. Is there an opportunity for you to release multiple variants of a new product, each centred on a geographical region or city? Variants could be inspired by local cuisine, a famous figure or a stereotypical design-style. This method might even be used as a customer recruitment tool, effectively being a way to niche down to multiple different smaller markets, whilst keeping your brand and product fundamentals intact.

Bark snacks

Image Credit: Bark