Bryan Taylor

The Value of the Back Porch

We love data as much as anyone, and we will often dive into data to kick off any new project, but we’ve found that data is more meaningful with context. So, when time allows, we prefer to start out with some conversations on the “back porch.”

To do this, we have borrowed the concept of unfocus groups from IDEO. The way we conduct our version of unfocus groups is to gather a small group of people in the middle of a restaurant or a bar and ask them six simple questions over a 90-minute period. The questions are odd — they seem rather random — and the participants don’t know anything about the projects that we’re actually researching. But we ask these questions so we can establish a tone that resembles that of a conversation that might take place on a back porch.

Too often, research tries to come in through the front door, where conversations are formal and expected, but the really good conversations happen over beers on the back porch — so that is what we try to create.


One of the best examples of this method’s effectiveness comes from the unfocus groups that we conducted for a retailer with brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Northwest. One of our objectives was to learn whether their customers would use a drive-through lane that was specifically for bikes — a bike-thru lane — to grab coffee or food or prescriptions.

Now, it seems like we could have created a simple survey asking straightforward questions with “yes” or “no” answers, like, “Would you use a bike-thru lane?” And the retailer may have heard a chorus of yeses and proceeded to build these bike-thru lanes. Instead, we paused the process and traveled to different parts of the Northwest to conduct unfocus groups in different communities.

The first was comprised of people who thought of bikes as vehicles for commuting, as a way of reducing their carbon footprints. The second included people who associated bikes with recreational cycling and weekend rides with friends. The third (and last) community was made up of people who each owned at least 10 bikes for various applications (mountain, road, cruisers, etc.) and were actually insulted by the phrase “biking.”

So, at the end of these back porch conversations, we were not only able to say, “Yes, people value biking,” but we could also say, “Yes, people value biking in these specific ways.” This allowed us to think about creating a more responsive plan that uniquely addresses the preferences of each location in order to develop the most meaningful connection with those customers, which, in an age that values custom experiences, is infinitely more powerful.