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Effective Focus Group Questions

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 — October 28th, 2018

Effective Focus Group Questions

Focus Groups are primarily utilized to generate qualitative research. Historically this was heavily slanted towards generating a focus group discussion aimed at gaining insight into products and services. Any aficionados of modern advertising will encounter some of the more obvious outcomes of focus groups, where advertisers reference, particularly with health and beauty products, the benefits participants felt in product X or Y. e.g. “67 of 83 participants who expressed a preference felt the visibility of wrinkle lines was reduced for up to 12 hours after using X".

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It might be argued that this is a fairly frivolous use of the Focus Group but, certainly from a Marketing perspective, it has been found to be an effective way to legitimize advertising claims in consumer advertising. Of course, Focus Groups have been in use by a huge range of industries since they came into vogue immediately post WWII. At this time the emphasis was very much on consumer products and how the qualitative nature of the research could aid the business to consumer sector.

Now, some seventy years on, Focus Groups and the data collected can be applied across a far wider range of business and societal objectives. HR departments can utilize an employee focus group in order to glean, through guided questioning, what staff opinions and feelings are surrounding workplace issues or other key factors the researchers wish to pinpoint. Writing in Forbes La'Wana Harris argues that the Focus Group is an important tool in the range of techniques businesses can use to assess employee workplace culture, “...we need to gather and be ready to act upon qualitative data received through employee engagement surveys with both multiple choice and open field responses, as well as small focus groups.”

Focus Groups typically range in size from as few as two to a comfortable maximum of eight; practitioners argue that more than this becomes a crowd and loses the intimate nature of such a group that helps to gather useful qualitative results. Time is also a factor with the consensus view being that an effective Focus Group should fall between 60 to 90 minutes in length.

Focus Groups have also become increasingly important in social sciences research and have become a common feature in the armory of tools used by governments and political parties in guiding policy.

However, whether for selling soap, getting constituent concerns regarding government policy or assessing employee satisfaction, all Focus Groups exhibit some key characteristics when it comes to how effective qualitative research is collected. Participants need to be guided by a group facilitator into providing useful, rather than monosyllabic, answers. ‘Yes or ‘No’ do not give much for researchers to work with.

This can be achieved by posing opening questions (sometimes called Probe Questions) which utilize terms like ‘Why or ‘How’. The key objective here is to elicit a more nuanced and thoughtful response from participants. Examples of the type of opening question might include…

  • How did you feel when…
  • What do you think...
  • What do you like most…
  • What challenges do you believe…
  • How did you manage…

This can lead on to Follow-up Questions aimed at shedding further light on participant’s opinions and feelings on the topic. This ultimately culminates in Exit Questions which aim to make sure that nothing has been left unsaid… or at least that every opportunity has been given to Focus Group members to express a view or feeling not captured at the Probe or Follow-up stages of the process.

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Exit Questions should ideally allow for participants to have free reign to indulge in an open-ended discussion. This is why dichotomous questions are best avoided. They inevitably lead to simplified responses which tend to kill any room for developing on the themes being discussed.

It could be argued that much of the research carried out across industry and society is an exercise in box-ticking. This isn’t to suggest it doesn’t have great value in providing useful actionable data. However, where quantitative research feels very much like a branch of science, qualitative approaches, like the Focus Group, are much more akin to an art. It’s about facilitating a small group in opening up about a topic, probing their opinions and feeling and ultimately capturing group opinions in a form which can then be used effectively within the organization. It is all about framing the right questions for the right time, with the right group. This is where the art and science meet.

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