In a darkened conference room, 10 consumers stare at a TV monitor displaying a car's center console. A hatch in the console opens, revealing a set of revolving storage compartments. ``It looks like a Rolodex,'' one viewer quips, as the others laugh skeptically. ``If one drawer jams, you'd have to tear the whole thing apart.''
That remark helped kill a new feature. After viewing a tape of the focus group, executives from Lear Seating Corp. halted work on the console.
``We were really enthusiastic about the console until we saw the videotape,'' recalled Ginny Runkle, Lear's director of product analysis.
``Then we looked at each other and said, `Oh, well.'*''
Lear Seating is not alone. At a time when automakers are asking suppliers to invest heavily in product design, major suppliers are using market research to avoid costly missteps.
Focus groups can be pricey, ranging from $50,000 for a quick-and-dirty program to $150,000 or so for a full-scale effort. But one expert predicts suppliers will prove more willing to pay that price to avoid a costly design blunder.
``A prototype is tremendously expensive, and the time taken to produce it is horrendous,'' said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. ``Some products have characteristics that customers are sensitive about, like the sound of a door closing. You can't design that product without the consumer.''
Automakers traditionally have relied on focus groups and other gauges of public opinion to measure customers' tastes. Now, suppliers are learning to do so - especially those who must de-sign car interiors, seats and consumer electronics. Those items have a huge impact on customer satisfaction, and such products can cost millions to develop.
``The industry can't afford the shotgun approach to innovation,'' said Tony Kestian, a program manager for Johnson Controls Inc.
``It's not good enough to design 10 products and hope one works. We want to get it right the first time.''
Kestian said the hottest new product in JCI's showroom - the integrated structural seat - was the direct result of a focus group session three years ago.
The seat, the first of its kind in a North American-built vehicle, debuted last fall in the Chrysler Sebring. The convertible features a shoulder harness anchored to the seat, not the door pillar. Motorists like it because they do not get tangled in the harness as they enter the car.
The seat drew admiring reviews from publications like Car and Driver magazine. But JCI executives knew the Sebring would be a low-volume car, and that sales would not generate enough profit to recoup the cost of designing the seat.
The company had to be sure the seat would appeal to owners of minivans and sedans - providing a strong selling point for the automakers. That is where the focus groups proved their worth. In 1993, JCI quizzed more than 200 consumers in Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. Each group typically included a moderator and 10-15 participants. A television camera recorded each meeting as company researchers monitored the sessions from another room.
In early focus group sessions, an artist sometimes attended to sketch product ideas dreamed up by participants. Later, JCIshowed participants drawings and mockups of various seat harnesses. The focus groups offered strong evidence that minivan owners found rear-seat shoulder harnesses awkward and hard to use.
``When she sits in the captain's chair, my little girl has so much trouble reaching back for the harness,'' one mother said during a videotaped session.
Said another: ``It's like a trip wire hanging down from the ceiling. No matter which way you get into the rear bench, you have to step over something.''
After the moderator showed one group a drawing of the seat-mounted shoulder harnesses, a woman turned to the camera at the back of the room and said, ``Thank you.''
The research gave JCI the confidence to design prototype seats for 25 different vehicles. Although the Sebring alone would not pay for the project, the company felt sure the seat would catch on.
``We envisioned that this seat would have a mass appeal,'' Kestian said. ``We don't want to design products that people don't want.''
The next step for JCI is to determine how much consumers might pay for premium seats. That is not easy, since a seat's cost is buried in the car's overall price tag.
Later this year, JCI will begin what Kestian calls trade-off analysis. Motorists will be asked to rank interior features. How badly do motorists want a motorized lumbar support? What would they give up for it - the CD changer or the adjustable headrest?
Automakers can use that information to determine how luxurious the seats of any given vehicle should be.
``It is obvious that the auto companies are going to rely on us to predict what seats ought to be like,'' Kestian said. ``In some cases, they will participate in this with us.''
For the seat makers, perhaps the toughest consumer research revolves around one question: What makes a seat comfortable?
At Lear Seating, researchers have spent three years developing a pressure-sensing mat that determines how a motorist's weight is distributed onto the seat. After analyzing data on hundreds of test subjects, Lear has mapped nine pressure zones on each car seat.
The company uses those results to design more comfortable seats and compare them to rival products. Lear also uses focus groups to check its results. The revolving drawer in the center console looked like a sure winner - until Lear ran it past a focus group.
Lear has had more success with other products. In October, the company used a focus group to evaluate a rear bench seat that it wants to introduce in a 1999 minivan. The firm gathered six consumers at a warehouse in Troy, Mich., to evaluate the interior layouts of a Dodge Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Mercury Villager, Ford Windstar, Toyota Previa and Chevrolet APV.
Participants were divided into two teams. Each team was asked to load each minivan with two large boxes, two suitcases and four grocery bags. Participants were videotaped loading each vehicle. Engineers were on hand to answer questions.
The results were revealing. Runkle's researchers had assumed the participants would have to move the seats to accommodate the large boxes. But often they did not bother, choosing instead to pile the luggage in between the front seats.
``They were clever devils,'' Runkle said. ``Most of the people didn't move the seats, or they moved them as little as possible. People won't do something that they consider to be unnecessary.''
Lear is using those insights to redesign its minivan bench, Run-kle said. Later in the design process, Lear will have a larger group of consumers evaluate it.
Results from early focus groups ``are not the kind of research that you make final decisions on, but it helps your thinking. It gives you ideas,'' he said.