Don’t shoot the messenger…
Or the method.
Suddenly focus group bashing is all the rage. Just as “let’s do focus groups” was the war cry till recently… So when did focus groups move from being synonymous with qualitative research to becoming a hated f-word? And why?
The answer to this is in the earlier paragraph itself. Used indiscriminately and where the method is not indicated, it is hardly surprising that focus groups do not yield the expected results.
And why did this happen? Because researchers faced with increasingly shrinking and impossible deadlines turned to focus groups as the quick alternative. And because clients found it a great way of being “invovled” in the research. Back-room research (somewhat in the vein of backseat driving) is something that all of us qualitative researchers have had to live with. And with a smiling face.
Like all methods, focus groups have their strengths and limitations. One of the common criticisms of focus groups is that it is an unreal situation (isn’t all research “unreal” that way?) and the data emerges from the “rational” thnking side of the respondents rather than the emotional “feeling” side. (let us for a moment agree with the idea that all our decisons are driven by our emotions and not thoughts, or the wallet, for instance).
Used well and done right, they can be invaluable in understanding consumer perceptions, the whys and the hows and the underlying emotions of these whys and hows. I have found focus groups help in literally that – gaining focus where I first began the research by groping n the dark. It gave clients an opportunity to ask the questions they wanted answered and choose the answers they wanted to hear. A creative and good moderator an get deep inside the skin of respondents using projective techniques that are at once sources of evocative and rich data for the researcher, and fun and relaxing for the respondent. Having said this, there are situations where focus groups work, and where they do not produce any siginifiant result. And this depends on the research need and the objective; let that guide the selection of method and I see no cause for dissatisfaction.
I agree that focus groups are not the best method for product design or innovation research. Customers are not innovators, nor are they trained designers. It is tough, even impossible for them to create or even envisage a product (or idea) that does not exist. I agree – Customers don’t innovate. (Link via the innovation weblog). Innovation is hard work, but it must be done by YOU. You can’t expect your customers to innovate for you.
And when you turn to focus groups as a short cut option, that is what you are doing, expecting customers to do your work for you. So why shoot the focus group?
Instead, why not use them as complementary to other more “immersive” methods. It is a fact that design and innovation oriented ethnography suffers from the serious limitaton of getting stuck when it comes to translating research insights into design ideas – is a designer qualified to do that? Or is a researcher, for that matter?
Why not use customers as that bridge between research and design – using them to sift through and whet ideas and concepts that emerge from ethnography methods – and help in that transition from research to design.
Filed under: Interesting research, Research methods | 4 Comments