The Simplest Way to Avoid the Research Fail of the Yellow Walkman

The key to learner discovery lies in the failed focus group for a 1980s and 90s staple: the Sony Walkman—an innovative handheld music player. Legend has it that participants rallied around Sony’s new design concept for its classic black model: a sporty yellow Walkman. Participants loved the color! It complemented their (likely neon) outfits! They loved having another choice! It looked sporty!

The focus group had spoken.

Or had they?

As participants walked out the door, they could pick a Walkman—black or yellow.

They all chose black.

Rewind. How’d that happen?

There were likely plenty of psychological phenomena in play, but it comes down to participants not having skin in the game.

Do you like the yellow Walkman? Sure.
What do you like about the yellow Walkman? Cue participants rattling off positives they truly believed.
Would you buy the yellow Walkman? Yes.

These questions didn’t mean anything to the participants. There was no consequence to liking (or not liking) or wanting (or not wanting) the new model. Why not like the new model?

But once participants had to put their choices where their mouths were, their real preferences emerged.

From product design to learning design

The product-design principle learned from that accidental case study should inform your field research.

If you ask a group if or how much they like certain options, such as on a scale of one to five, they’re likely to rate them all around three or four. But if you ask them to rank options, you’re going to get a clearer picture of their actual preferences.

This simple tweak gives the interviewees skin in the game. It pushes learners to truly consider their preferences instead of arbitrarily scoring options independent of one another.

Whether you’re gauging preferences and needs of what content someone is learning or how content is being delivered, having them rank options forces them to make a decision. Forcing rankings not only eliminates the false data invited by the wrong types of questions, but it also pushes the learner to wrestle with the pros and cons of the options. This allows us as researchers to probe beyond WHAT they think to WHY they think it.

We believe in the power of field research and using observation tools

Field research tools allow you to spend more time thinking about the problem so you can find the right solution. Check out 4 field-research observation tools and how to use them.

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