Focus group methodology – What you need to know!
— November 3rd, 2018
Organizations thrive when they have clear goals and an effective method to track performance towards meeting them.
There are plenty of methodological approaches for measuring goals; it might be quarterly sales figures or other market metrics. However, numbers only deal with quantitative measures. That’s where the Focus Group can come to the aid of an organization that wants to look beyond the numbers and understand some of the contextual and subjective measures affecting performance.
But, to effectively utilize the Focus Group as a means for collecting useful information, we need to understand what it is and some of the broad principles underlying their constitution and operation.
What’s a Focus Group?
A Focus Group typically constitutes a number of people with a common interest in the topic the researcher wants to explore. It can be as few as four people but rarely goes over twelve. That’s to ensure a level of manageability: the larger the group, the more challenging it will be for a moderator to include feedback from all participants. The facilitator is the person tasked with managing the conversation around a pre-defined topic.
As Gigi Devault sees it:
“Focus groups are designed to identify the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of consumers about a particular product, service, or solution. It does that very well, in part, because focus groups utilize qualitative data collection methods. Just as in the dynamics of real life, the participants are able to interact, influence, and be influenced.”
So Focus Groups are dynamic. It’s about gathering more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions and, ideally, helping to create a dialogue amongst participants which will allow researchers to gain useful insights that quantitative measures can fail to capture.
Why use Focus Groups?
As mentioned, Focus Groups allow organizations to delve into the opinions, feelings, and impulses behind why their target audience are motivated (or not) around a particular topic, product or service. Much of the original work into Focus Groups was carried out in the 20th century and used primarily to look at driving retail sales of consumer products. Latterly, it came to be used by political parties to better craft policies to win elections.
Today Focus Groups in a variety of shapes and guises are a common tool for a wide range of organizations and not just those seeking to sell more toothpaste or toilet roll.
This is due to the wealth of subjective data to can potentially gather, including:
This qualitative insight can then help provide useful color and context to raw numbers gathered from the quantitative end of the spectrum. As Sampson Quain explains, “A focus group also allows consumers to express clear ideas and share feelings that do not typically come out in a quantified survey or paper test. Because of the open conversation among group members, topics and discussions are free-flowing and members can use comments from others to stimulate recall.”
For example, a company seeing an upturn in sales of a particular product may have no sense of what it is that its customers find appealing about it. Is it the branding, the price, the performance? Talking to a cross-section of the target market and exploring their motivations within a Focus Group can tease out what the raw numbers cannot.
Downsides to watch for with Focus Groups
Whilst the Focus Group can act as a useful adjunct to quantitative data, it is not without issues. Any small group of people brought together to discuss a particular topic will be affected by the dynamics of the personalities brought together. One interviewee with a particularly strong perception could if allowed to dominate the process, lead to others not expressing their views and feelings if they are in opposition. This makes the role of the facilitator or moderator all the more important in steering a discussion which allows all participants to have their say and avoid the potential for ‘groupthink’.
This was a term popularized by psychologist Irving Janis whose studies suggested that, according to Victoria Venegas, "...people often censor themselves, don’t offer differing opinions, and fail to address alternatives in groups. Part of this is explained through the pressure of conformity, which is much more pronounced in groups, and by people’s unwillingness to disagree with others."
Designing a Focus Group
By their nature, Focus Groups can be set up to address almost any topic. Whether developing a new product, wanting feedback on the customer experience of the organization or just seeking new ways to raise the employee experience, a well planned and executed focus group -- with clear objectives -- will reap results.
Start by defining the objective(s) of the Focus Group. For example, a large computer manufacturer might be unsure why a product line of laptops is not selling as hoped. A Focus Group drawing on the views of what the company saw as the ideal target market might be drawn together with the objective, 'Understand the motivations of our customers and what constitutes their perception of the perfect laptop for their needs'.
Next comes the task of drawing together the group. This will raise questions such as;
- Who should populate the group, age, gender, ethnicity, etc
- Moderation - someone from the organization or an external ‘non-partisan’ voice?
- The Location -- somewhere comfortable will ensure participants are relaxed
- Capture - recording is straightforward today but ensure participants have given consent first.
- More than one group? If budget and time allow, having more than one focus group may deliver useful contrast and act as a counter to groupthink.
Focus on the Focus Group
Fundamentally, the Focus Group is a hugely useful tool for organizations seeking to gain non-quantitative insights into aspects of their operation. However, a balance needs to be struck between under-utilizing qualitative data gathering, versus over-reliance on the subjective experience of participants compared to the hard numbers of quantitative research.
As with any research endeavor, we need to recognize that both quantitative and qualitative methods of collection have pros and cons. Focus Groups are more effective in unearthing the underlying motivations of participants that often do not emerge from data-driven quantitative approaches. Finding the right balance will ultimately be driven by company objectives and goals and how the information gathered will help.