The focus is in the detail

By Heidi Dietzsch

Focus groups, developed in the 1940s by American sociologist Robert Merton, played a crucial role during the Second World War when it was used to evaluate the effectiveness of war propaganda.

Subsequently, it evolved into an important tool for the advertising industry to assess the effectiveness of ads. It continues to be important in numerous forms of research today, particularly when market researchers need data that are exploratory and qualitative in nature. Unlike quantitative research, which produces empirically measurable data, qualitative research methods are designed to yield primarily non-numerical data. Quantitative data answer questions such as: How much? How many? How often? To what extent? On the other hand, qualitative data can help us to understand the how and why of our actions, motivations, decisions, thoughts and reasoning.

Focus groups are designed to identify the feelings, perceptions and thinking of consumers about a particular product, service or solution. A group typically consists of six to eight respondents with similar profiles, for instance women who use the same bank and are between the ages of 35 and 49. Moderators lead these sessions with the aim of gaining valuable insights through the intensive discussion of a specific topic. The discussions usually last around an hour and a half, with other researchers and clients observing through a one-way mirror.

Much of the success of a focus group depends on the group dynamics and the skills of the moderator. Generally, the more homogenous a group is, the more successful it will be. It also helps if respondents gel and engage in stimulating, free-flowing conversation. A comfortable setting that is not distracting will contribute to insightful discussions.

Unfortunately, a few vocal respondents can dominate discussions and affect the expressions of others. Also, some respondents might be inhibited and thus not reveal their real feelings or opinions, but rather what they think is expected of them. These tend to simply agree with the majority. This tendency might be exacerbated if respondents are aware that they are being watched through a one-way mirror.

Moderators should be thoroughly prepared, using a well-designed discussion guide. Ideally, they should have some background in sociology or psychology. Moderators should be exceptional listeners with the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues and nuances.

They should start the discussion with a warm-up session where respondents introduce themselves and the moderator establishes rapport. Humour can be used where appropriate. The moderator should try to make respondents feel at ease and this is easier when respondents are able to relate to the moderator. It is a good idea to dress in similar attire as the respondents, for instance informal wear if they are a group of teenagers.

One benefit of focus groups is that they allow researchers to personally view and digest respondents’ opinions within just a couple of hours. When compared with traditional surveys, feedback is also a lot more detailed and results can be easier and quicker to interpret than complicated statistical data.

Focus groups are generally cheaper than other traditional data collection methods, and more flexible because they can be adjusted based on the group’s behaviour. Also, verbal responses can be supplemented with non-verbal cues such as respondents’ body language and facial expressions.The qualitative data garnered from focus groups can complement quantitative data and can add a lot more colour to it.

However, not everyone is a proponent of focus groups. The American experimental psychologist, Philip Hodgson, writes that most conventional focus groups measure the wrong thing. They do not measure what people think when making a purchase. They measure what people think when participating in a focus group. He reckons the psychological, sociological, neurological and even financial factors bearing on a person’s decision making while they are participating in a focus group are not the same factors that bear on decision making when the same person makes an actual purchase.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

According to author and designer Erika Hall, the only real thing one will get out of focus groups are the opinions that respondents are willing to convey in the presence of a group of strangers.

Although some people don’t consider focus groups to be ideal research tools, they have kept up with the times by moving into the online realm. By using chat and web conferencing technology, the logistical problems usually associated with traditional focus groups are eliminated. For instance, the communication platform Google Hangouts allows groups of people to participate in text, voice or video chats.Moderators are then able to make the discussion more visual by making use of screen shares.

Online focus groups are perfect when respondents need to be high-profile people who are very busy and difficult to recruit. This method allows these types of respondents to participate from their own home or office. When online, respondents might be more spontaneous and open, since they have a feeling of anonymity. Online focus groups are also more cost-effective than traditional ones and clients are ale to view them from any location in the world.

By combining traditional methods with technology, this time-honoured data collection method can still have a bright future. However, for optimal effect, the variables cited above need to be considered for focus groups to be successful in delivering the desired results. When researchers want to tell a colourful story, as opposed to just gather statistical data, focus groups remain a very reliable tool.