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HOW TO: Leverage Focus Groups to Move from Prototype to Product Launch

by Justin Spratley

“I like the product because it looks glossy, that means it’s expensive to make. If the company is spending that much on the box, then it must be good.”

As market researchers, we hear this type of feedback time and time again from consumers – particularly when conducting focus groups to better understand the customer journey. While the statement might not be logical, the feedback is still very important to consider.

For many companies, a primary tool for understanding the customer journey is to conduct comprehensive online surveys. Online surveys are a terrific way to cast a wide net and develop a general understanding of consumer behavior. However, surveys’ abilities to reveal consumer behavior in-store, where shelf placement and packaging can make all the difference in the consumer’s decision to purchase, are limited.

While it is possible to A/B test your way to the ‘perfect’ looking box by incorporating the highest-performing color pallet and tag lines, the tactile experience of purchase cannot be fully measured with surveys or in online focus groups. If you are selling in brick and mortar, you must understand what happens when your customer picks up your product.

Does it look good? Does it feel good? What happens when consumers have both your product and your competitor’s product in their hands? What did they think about the product/packaging and how does it impact their decision to make a purchase or not?

Observing consumers in a closed environment will allow you to circumvent avoidable errors in your package design. You can determine what text can be read at a glance, and what text was so small that consumers need to reach for their reading glasses, for example. In-person observation via focus groups is essential to optimize product launch plans, but companies should follow a few key steps to use focus groups to optimize packaging for launch and produce the most useful results.



Let’s consider this: you’re a product executive at a company that operates in a category that sees annual sales in the millions of units. Consequently, gaining the slightest edge on your competitors can significantly impact the bottom line.

You’re in the final stages of redesigning the packaging for a top-selling product. Your prototype is visually appealing, but you don’t know how the packaging is going to stand up to your competitors.

Below, we outline five essential steps your organization should follow to get the most out of face-to-face focus groups, and successfully move from prototype to product launch.

STEP ONE: Review Your Competitors’ Strategies

First, determine who your competitors are and what their strategies are in the market. Businesses that keep a tight pulse on who they are up against in the market place through ongoing competitor research are better equipped to answer this question when it comes time for product launch.

STEP TWO: Analyze Existing Internal Data and Form a Hypothesis

Second, review your existing data and form a hypothesis. What do customers think about the packaging of your other product offerings? What strategies should be carried over or changed in design? What responses have you received from customer satisfaction surveys?

The key to successful focus groups is to go in with enough information to form a clear hypothesis of what you want to test.

STEP THREE: Determine What Type of Focus Group is Right for You

Before determining what type of in-person focus group to pursue, you will need to answer whether in-person observation is the best option for your organization. Face-to-face focus groups are best when time and money are not significant factors.

Shopper insights focus groups that can be utilized for package testing include:

  • Central Location Test – a study conducted at a selected test site or sites in an area. The interviewing method is usually in person and done one-on-one or in groups. This is often used for taste-tests, or other tests requiring sensory components.
  • In-Home Use Test – a test that involves participants evaluating products in their own homes, or more generally, in a natural usage environment. The purpose of the test is to evaluate a product based on experiences beyond the initial use.
  • Controlled Testing Center – a focus group done in a controlled location.

STEP FOUR: Select Participants

Next, select focus group participants. While selecting participants for focus groups is a nuanced endeavor, organizations should be able to answer the following questions before moving forward with a focus group:

Have you recruited enough participants? A general rule of thumb is to recruit between 6 and 12 participants for your face-to-face focus group.

  • Have you recruited the appropriate individuals who will provide the most robust conversation?
  • Does the focus group have enough diversity to expose different points of view and encourage discussion?

It is strongly encouraged that organizations involve research professionals as active agents in this process to discourage recruiting bias.

 STEP FIVE: Develop Your Focus Group Guide

Finally, develop a focus group guide outlining key questions. Asking everything during a focus group is not feasible, so focus on designing good questions. Good questions are those that are small enough to be addressed adequately in a single research project. Questions should also not be too big to manage or too small to matter.

For example, instead of asking, “What do you look for when you’re shopping?” ask, “What role does the color and texture of packaging play in your decision to pick a product up off the shelf?” Overall, use language that is easy for your audience to understand and tailored to encourage conversation.


Focus groups allow organizations to understand the tactile element of the purchase process. For example, while some consumers may focus on how impressive the packaging looks, others may prefer to shake the box to test if the product seems more durable.

Organizations that overlook direct consumer feedback will have their product picked up and quickly returned to the shelf, resulting in missed revenue for their company, or worse, additional revenue for their competitors.

Download our Shopper Insights Overview to see how your organization can gain insights into the shopper experience to optimize products and promotions.


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