Focus Groups

Definition of a focus group

There are many different kinds of group sessions referred to as focus groups. Just about any time people get together to discuss something it’s called a focus group. For the purpose of this workbook, we are going to use the following definition:

1. A focus group is a group of approximately 6 to 10 people, clients or customers who meet with a moderator to answer questions related to a particular research topic.

2. Focus groups are 1.5 to 2 hours long. (Two hours is a long time to concentrate on a specific topic, but you need at least one hour to make sure you get enough in-depth information from all your participants.)

3. Focus groups should be used to gather information, not give information! Now, this may seem obvious, but we are so used to giving information sessions that we often difficult to refrain from doing so.

4. A focus group is not a problem solving session. A focus group is simply a method to gather and explore the opinions and perceptions of your customers. You can ask for suggestions on how to improve your product or service near the end of the focus group session. But the purpose of the session is to find out how people feel so that you can make appropriate decisions. They (the focus group) should not be expected to solve the problem because they may not be aware of all the factors involved.

A problem solving session requires different skills, and techniques, for example pulling some experts or specialists together to brainstorm and arrive at consensus or develop an action plan.

5. A focus group is a unique discussion used to gather qualitative information from a group of people on a specific topic.

Appropriate use of a focus group

Use a focus group when you want to:

1. Find out what people think and feel, and what their opinions are about a specific thing (such as an object, policy, principle, attitude, people) in a group.

2. Explore participant’s responses to find out why they feel or perceive things the way they do.

Focus groups differ from a meeting or group discussion in two important ways:

1. Confidential and impartial atmosphere. The formality of a focus group creates a confidential atmosphere that is conducive to honesty. The moderator does not influence or react to the data being offered. He/she has no opinion, either verbally or non-verbally.

2. Information exchange. In a focus group, the information flow is one-way – from the participants to the moderator.

A focus group can be used during the following stages of a product/idea development.

1. Before developing a product or service as a needs assessment, to determine what your clients or customers want or need.

2. During the product development, to improve, or for example testing various draft samples to see if on the right track and to get initial reactions to clients or customers.

3. After the product or service has been developed and used by your customers, to evaluate its success. How do they like it? Are there any flaws and enhancements they would like to see?

The specific types of applications in which focus groups have been used include:

1. New product development studies
2. Positioning studies
3. Habits and usage studies
4. Packaging assessments
5. Attitude studies
6. Advertising/copy evaluations
7. Promotional evaluations
8. Idea generation
9. Employee attitude and motivational studies
10. Predicting new product success
11. Determining reasons for decreasing sales
12. Spotting product gaps
13. Evaluating competitive products.

Focus group advantages

A focus group has a number of advantages over other research methods.

1. Provides information quickly. You don’t have to mail out questionnaires and wait for a response. You can get a group of people together in a relatively short period of time if you have to, and hold your focus groups within a couple of days. But it takes time to prepare and test your questions, and analyze the data after you get it.

2. Relatively low cost. There are limited mailing costs, and group interviews are more efficient than one-on-one interviews. Your sample size can be relatively small, yet sufficiently representative if you choose your participants well. A good cross-section of opinions allows you to explore all aspects of your topic.

3. Allows the moderator to explore responses. Because the focus groups are interactive, the moderator can ask the participant to explain their response in more detail, but in a questionnaire, the initial response is all you get. The moderator can also read the body language, and tone of the participant.

4. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Group interaction can reveal important information. Participants build on each others’ comments and ideas that results in a “Springboard Effect.” With a variety of personalities, experiences and attitudes in the room, you can explore all aspects of the topic you are researching.

An important component of focus group testing is that is forces people to use both the left and the right side of the brain – the logical and the creative. By asking participants how they “feel” you are tapping into their emotions and their creativity. Focus groups allow you to bring in visuals or samples of products you are testing. This allows obtaining data from “emotional” reactions to your products.

Focus group limitations

Here are a number of limitations of focus groups.

1. Data may be difficult to analyze. The focus group session is recorded verbatim, and you must then pull out the main themes and analyze what was said. There is a lot of information to go through and sometimes it is difficult to organize.

2. Moderators require special skills. It takes practice and special skills to moderate a focus group discussion effectively such as managing group dynamics, how to encourage equal participation, and how to stay out of the content of the discussion.

3. Researcher has less direct control in focus groups than in individual interviews. Group discussions are more difficult to manage the individual conversations; there may be a tendency to get off track. The moderator has less control because there are more people, and more factors involved.

4. Groups with a cross-section of viewpoints can be difficult to assemble. It may be difficult to get participants from all walks of life. Conflicting schedules, different interests and activities can complicate your recruiting process.

5. The discussion must be conducted in an appropriate environment. First you have to have room available, and this room must be private and away from distractions in the office; we may not have the money to spend on renting a room in a hotel.

Focus group steps

Here are the steps that need to be taken to design and run a focus group.

1. Define research objective
2. Select moderator and recorder
3. Design questions
4. Get approvals (if necessary)
5. Organize facilities and logistics
6. Select participants
7. Conduct session
8. Review data
9. Make recommendations
10. Write the final report.

Selecting focus group participants

As in most market research, the quality of the results is dependent on the quality of the participants. Here are some tips for selecting the right people.

1. Choose people who best meet the recruitment criteria. Those who do so marginally should be eliminated first.

2. Avoid people who are well below or well above the average age of the target group. The more homogeneous the group, the better the participants will be able to relate to each other. Keep men and women, and people from very different educational/socioeconomic levels in different groups.

3. Eliminate people who appear unlikely to contribute meaningfully to the discussions, e.g., excessive shyness, language problems, hearing problems, attitude problems towards group or topic.

4. Be sure the participants are sufficiently aware of the product or service under discussion; otherwise they will be unable to provide meaningful input.

5. Select participants that have positive AND negative feelings about a product or services. Many focus groups are intended to learn what is wrong and needs to be fixed.

Asking the right questions

Here is a suggested process for designing focus group questions:

1. Brainstorm potential questions with colleagues. Some of the best ideas come from brainstorming, and it also makes it easy to begin because you know it’s not written in stone.

2. Select the questions you want to ask in your focus group. Examine the questions in light of your objectives, and choose the ones that will help you get the information you need. Consider your end action alternatives and be sure that the data you are collecting is sufficient and complete enough for you to make meaningful recommendations.

3. Put your questions in appropriate order. Determine what order you want to ask the questions by keeping the following points in mind:

  • The discussion should flow naturally, just like a regular conversation. Avoid reading the questions, and the strict question-answer routine. The idea is to explore the responses and encourage open discussion.
  • The first question should be an icebreaker to get your participants warmed up and comfortable with the group. Don’t dive right into the content because you may not get input from everyone if they’re just warming up.>
  • Start with general questions first and get more specific at the end. This help participants build their confidence and willingness to participate.
  • Ask sensitive questions close to the end of the discussion. You don’t want to intimidate or alienate your group by moving too fast. Your will get best results if you ask the sensitive questions after you have established a certain level of trust with your participants during the discussion.

4. Test your questions on a friend, colleague or sample customer. (Don’t include these “testers” in the actual focus group).

5. Revise your questions after you have tested them, make the necessary changes to improve your questions.

Tips for effective question design

Here are some things to keep in mind when preparing the focus group questions:

1. Focus group questions must be carefully prepared. Take the time you need to do a good job up front and it will save you time and grief later on. As you design your questions, keep your objective in mind.

2. Don’t include too many questions. Allow just under half an hour per question. Five or six main questions are about right for a 1.5 to 2 hour session.

3. Ask only one question at a time (no double questions).

4. Ask specific questions.

5. Be careful in phrasing of “why” questions. Asking respondents “why” puts them on the spot. The respondent does not have to justify why they feel or perceive something in a certain way. Rather than “why” ask “Could you elaborate a bit on that last point?” or “Were there others that contributed to that experience as well?”

6. Avoid jargon.

7. Use open-ended questions. Avoid questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer.