On the surface, a focus group seems like a simple, straightforward exercise. Get a bunch of people in a room, feed them some snacks, ask them some questions, et voilà! Research!
The reality is, unfortunately, more complicated. Over the years, we’ve seen how tricky these exercises are, a delicate balance of harmony and discord that can lead to truly powerful insights—but only if care is taken.
We occasionally cringe when we hear about companies and organizations grabbing people off the street at random for DIY focus groups. This may seem like a cost-effective way to get some feedback, but precisely who is in that room and exactly why they’ve been chosen are important factors to a positive outcome for the research.
A focus group isn’t simply a bunch of individuals speaking in turn, but a dynamic discussion that takes on a life of its own. A good focus group creates a dynamic that raises the collective wisdom in the room, as shown through decades of research on the importance of diversity to solving complex problems.
Recruiting people in order to reflect the kind of diversity that will help inform the research is key. When we talk about “diversity,” of course, we’re not talking only about racial or ethnic diversity, but any factors that might distinguish key segments within the study: income, age, marital status, product usage, etc.
For example, when doing focus groups as part of jury research, we recruit jurors that reflect the age, race, political, and economic composition of the trial jurisdiction. We don’t only want to know how jurors feel about a case, but also how they discuss the case as part of a collective group of community representatives.
In focus groups with consumers or professionals, we take care to recruit around the kinds of experiences that will inform our research questions, while also making sure we have diversity within those experiences.
The goal is to put together a group of respondents who will share enough in common about the subject at hand to have a good discussion, while also creating enough friction for sparks of insight to appear.
A good focus group is structured around a guide or script that the moderator uses to move the respondents through a discussion in an organic way. We often find ourselves doing groups on subjects that may be complicated or emotionally sensitive, and a well-structured guide allows us to make sure participants are oriented and comfortable before moving to more difficult questions.
There are also a number of different techniques you can use to address specific objectives. For example, if you want to make sure groupthink doesn’t suppress individual voices, you can ask participants to write down their answers before discussing. Or, if you need to get insight into underlying emotions, projective techniques—such as word or image association—can be very powerful.
Of course, the choice of approach should always be rooted in the research objectives. When we plan a guide, we always consider the end goal, the kind of information that will ultimately allow our clients to move forward with confidence.
An experienced moderator makes a focus group look easy, but it is anything but. Consider the challenge of corralling a discussion among 10 or 12 strangers, where you’re trying to follow a scripted guide and, simultaneously, have to listen closely to the participants in order to remain sensitive to an unexpected but valuable line of information.
Theresa Schreiber of TSQ research, a moderator with more than 30 years of experience in the industry, says that “There is a certain wizardry involved in moderating focus groups. The moderator juggles group interactions, keeps viewers engaged, and covers everything outlined in the discussion guide—and that is just what is visible on the surface. On a deeper level, like an orchestra conductor, the moderator is simultaneously listening and assessing based on what is happening in the moment. When is it time to move the discussion along, and when it is time to dig in deeper because the discussion has taken an unexpected but relevant turn?”
The moderator is a researcher herself, considering the objectives every step of the way, while being prepared to adapt and adjust at a moment’s notice. An experienced moderator knows how to ask questions on the fly without biasing potential responses and how to keep respondents comfortable with revealing potentially sensitive information.
The moderator must also maintain composure and balance amid a potential range of emotionally charged situations and reactions that can emerge. For example, the cancer patient who breaks into tears, or the doctor who comes in with a “know it all” attitude. These moments can be very revealing, but they can also alter the group dynamic and potentially bias the research results.
It is a juggling act where there is simply no substitute for experience. Quite frankly, people can be unpredictable, and a group dynamic may be volatile or—worse—inert. Having a moderator who has seen and done it all ensures that the best laid plans of the recruiting and the guide will not go awry.
Always have snacks. But nothing too noisy.
Even in this age of Big Data, qualitative research like focus groups is invaluable when it comes to discovering the “why” of consumer behavior hidden beneath the “what.” An experienced third-party researcher coming in from the outside can help your organization better understand what might be lurking underneath.
Whatever you do, stay focused on your key objectives and be careful not to overstuff the discussion guide. A meaningful discussion takes time to emerge. Sometimes there is no substitute for talking with people, and when you do talk to them, you want to take maximum advantage of that time together.