When something becomes a running joke on every sitcom since the 80s, you know it’s been overdone. The traditional focus groups is overdone. But I don’t think the focus group, or something akin to it more precisely, is dead. It’s an imperfect methodology but it has its place and it can be done well – if we rethink the process. Instead, there is the “un-focused” group; a gathering of individuals in a workshop or open discussion forum where they have access to a wide range of creative things to stimulate interaction and creation. The sample is smaller and the setting more intimate, which can lead to more effort and resources, but the outputs are closer to what you want to know (namely why people believe what they do) than you get from a traditional format.
Ultimately, the structure helps uncover perceptions, emotional ties, values and shared meaning, as well as activities and processes of use. Placing individuals in a more organic, open setting stimulates interaction and minimizes the biggest flaw of the traditional focus group: the Hawthorne Effect (the tendency to perform or perceive differently when one knows they are being observed).
Preparing and Staging. Setting up the location is pivotal to the success of this research format. Rather than relying on a conference table and a two-way mirror, the goal is to produce a more natural setting to strike a balance between a living space and a professional space. One process utilizes two rooms, one where the “pre-discussion” will occur and another that will be used for the majority of the session.
In both rooms, furniture should be soft and result in collective interaction, meaning a mix of sofas and chairs. Traditionally, sofas are avoided in focus groups because the assumption is that it infringes on personal space, making participants uncomfortable, but considering that the intention is to disrupt preconceived notions of what takes place in a focus group, participants typically become comfortable quickly. Their psychological frame of what they are “supposed to do” breaks down and they subconsciously see it as a chance to open up.
Floor lamps should dominate the room (not overhead lighting) and colors should reflect a home-like atmosphere. The idea is to create the kind of environment that facilitates conversation rather than a corporate or laboratory-like setting.
Of course, this also impacts the size of the sample. The traditional method is to gather anywhere from 8 to 12 participants. Changing the structure to a more conversational dynamic means reducing the sample to between 6 and 8 participants per session. While the larger sample certainly puts more bodies in a room it doesn’t guarantee an increase in discussion or viewpoints because the dynamic is not conducive to conversation. The smaller sample, coupled with the change in environment, fosters conversation and consequently, better information.
The Discussion before the Discussion. Before the primary conversation begins, it is helpful set the mood and get people relaxed with a brief pre-discussion, preferably around a meal. This is not just courtesy. Human beings are hardwired to respond to the act of sharing a meal. In every society, gathering around food signals trust and intimacy, promoting honest, open interactions with each other. Beginning the focus group around a substantial meal (not simply snacks) people are more apt to talk freely getting them primed for discussion. This is also a good time to start informally discussing the main topic of the evening.
Introductions, personal stories, and an overview of the discussion should be emphasized during this phase. If topics come up that will be revisited during the main discussion it is fine, but the moderator should redirect the conversation so that not all the information is revealed early on. Allowing the participants to start talking primes them to provide more expansive, clear, and detailed responses during the main discussion. During this initial phase, no camera is used because the goal is to get participants into a relaxed, conversational state of mind. By eliminating the camera, there is no threat of “performance” and participants become comfortable with each other and the moderator. Since valuable information will no doubt begin to emerge at this stage, and since no camera is recording the event, it is imperative that the facilitator be a skilled note taker.
The Main Event. In the primary discussion area, changing the setting will alter how information is captured and relayed to the clients. There are no hidden cameras and no two-way mirrors. Cameras are set up in unobtrusive locations and addressed openly when the group comes together. Information is then broadcast to the clients/viewers. Once again, the reason is to be intentionally disruptive to the mental model people have about focus groups. The disruption is interpreted as an expression of honesty and the camera is quickly forgotten. The truth is that participants in traditional focus groups are already aware of and performing for the camera, even if they can’t see it – if nothing else, the mirror is a constant reminder they are being watched.
Facilitation is done using a dual moderator method, where one moderator ensures the session progresses smoothly, while another ensures that all the topics are covered. In addition to ensuring all the material is covered and questions addressed, the dual moderator process helps maintain the conversational tone by shifting the power dynamic of the group. Rather than a single person leading and everyone following, the second moderator (seated among the participants) breaks up the dynamic and redirects the exchange of information. Opening up the information exchange process means having an opportunity for more open and honest disclosure and discussion in a setting where participants are validated.
The Follow Up. The final step is to close the session. Once a typical focus group is over, there is usually a bit of time where some participants linger and offer bits of information they felt weren’t expressed clearly or share stories with others. In this model, participants are actively encouraged to spend 20 minutes or so talking with the moderators. The first step is to turn the camera off. The key point is that the end of a focus group represents an opportunity that is all too frequently overlooked. Keeping the participants for a post-discussion phase often captures pieces of information that go unspoken or unarticulated during the main discussion.
Changing the structure of the focus group can be uncomfortable for both those moderating and those watching it. It appears much less structured than traditional methods because the focus is getting the target audience to open up and give real answers, not perform for the camera.
Remember, the goal is to put participants in a state of mind where they feel in control, instead of simply telling the moderators what they want to hear. Changing the format to a more relaxed, expansive session means worrying less about data and more about generating creative thinking and new ideas. Giving yourself license to think broadly is the key to success.