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.


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4 Responses to “Don’t shoot the messenger…”

  1. I think there are a couple of things missing from your analysis of why focus groups have become the new “f” word.

    First, marketing has for years now confused focus groups with user research. Fair enough, since it is the closest method marketing has to user research. The problem here is if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like nails, and you mis-use to tool.

    And second, focus groups reveal attitudes and not behaviour. Problem here is attitude is nearly useless, or worse yet specious, in terms of informing product design and development.

    This doesn’t even mention the frequently attrocious way focus groups are conducted (leading the witness, training instead of listening, engineer questions to get the answer your client wants to hear, etc..)

    But even if conducted well and right (as you say), unless you’re working on an ad campaign or branding effort, a focus group is probably the wrong method.

  2. niblettes, actually I have said much the same things that you have… I agree that focus groups are not suited for user research the way they are used right now – I am only wondering if there is a way we can adapt focus gorups to complement data from other sources…

    as for bad moderators, I don’t see that as a problem with the method – it is just as easy to conduct surveys badly and even easier to manipulate survey data. same for ethnographic or any other methods – handled carelessly, they can be extremely subjective and one-sided….

  3. Long response Charu … blogged it here too …

    It’s a debate that’s been going on for years … its funny .. I feel a little caught in-between … as I do more and more ethnographic research, I’m getting less fond of focus groups. Still, traditional FMCG sort of clients rely heavily on focus groups as their preferred method, and I work with many such Clients.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that Clients and Researchers don’t really look at these tools as data collection tools but as ends in themselves. How many times have you heard the brand manager or the account planner say … we’ve done the ‘mandatory’ focus groups. Both researchers and clients adopt one or the other method, depending on their own comfort levels, rather than the requirement or need from the project.

    Focus Groups are a bad word among many anthropologists and ethnographers … and Ethnography is seen as the latest buzzword by many motivational researchers. It’s about hybridization and we need to be flexible as researchers in adopting these tools … I remember during a recent project that was involved Ethnographies, there came a point when I felt a couple of quick focus groups might help our understanding of an issue … luckily the Client, although a workplace Anthropologist, felt the same. We did them, and they added lots of value to the Ethnographic Study.

    I’d rather think of myself as a Qualitative Research Practitioner or Consultant … than a focus group moderator, or an ethnographer !

  4. There are so many other more appropriate qualitative reasearch methods that I can’t see much of a payoff in modding focus groups–why try force a sqaure peg into a round hole when you’ve got so many round pegs already?

    As to bad focus grouop moderation, the problem is inherenet in the method to a greater degree than in other methods. Focus Groups encourage moderator and group skewing, bias and leading in more powerful and subtle ways than other qualitative methods.

    I’ve alway found studying people more obliquely tends to yield less affected results than more direct approaches.

    I may be a bit extreme in this, but I don’t see any babies in the focus group bathwater.

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