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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.