riveting discussion of focus groups turned out to be one of the
most multifaceted explorations of a topic we have ever conducted!
evening began with an in-depth overview
of focus groups
given by expert Robyn Letters, left, principal of Opinion
Studies in San Luis Obispo (see
speaker details below).
zeroed in on one particular way in which focus groups are commonly used
in marketing contexts, by companies
interested in collecting consumer feedback to help evaluate and fine-tune
their products and services. As
part of this profile, Robyn showed video clips of sessions she has facilitated
on behalf of local client companies. Other areas in which Robyn and
her colleagues perform opinion research include health care, scientific
arenas, and mock juries.
overview was adroitly expanded with practical applications offered by
event guest Michael Boyer, VP of Operations at Web
Associates in San Luis Obispo and a previous SLO STC event
panelist. His company routinely conducts focus groups and similar
feedback-gathering sessions with clients, which include Apple Computer
and Hewlett-Packard. The techniques range from traditional face-to-face
focus groups (conducted by impartial, third party facilitators) to online
surveys, personal interviews, and
latter can simultaneously engage people all over the world in viewing
and discussing a particular interface design, even if the participants
can't actually see each other.
culminated the evening with a fascinating panel discussion involving
Robyn and Cal Poly staff and faculty members Erika Rogers, Mary Somerville,
Helen Chu, and Dave Gillette (please see speaker details,
below). The Cal Poly panelists have been developing a dynamic model
for conducting single-person
usability testing that, once completed, shifts
to having participants fill out individual questionnaires and then proceeds
to focus group debriefings. The focus groups converge on discussing
the real purposes people would have for using that particular
interface (not just the placement of the buttons, for example). This
seems to produce the best that each method has to offer in
the way of rich participant feedback.
Cal Poly model involved a three-phased approach with 1) Mary
and her colleagues conducting usability tests and focus groups with
student and faculty groups, 2) Erika and her students analyzing
the data, and 3) Helen and her IT department implementing the
student findings and recommendations. Dave noted that this type
participants feel that any concerns they express will be taken seriously
instead of simply getting lost in the ether. In addition, this model
the tendency for group think to occur in poorly structured
focus groups, and can help balance the playing field on politically
in all, the event provided attendees with intriguing new ideas and interesting
slants on this very valuable subject! Below
are some of the key ideas presented at various points during the evening.
to planning effective focus groups
to use: Companies and other organizations use focus groups when
they want to gather insights that are richer and more in-depth than
would typically emerge from surveys or one-on-one interviews. Involving
several participants in a group setting enables people to hear each
other's viewpoints, which can spark awarenesses and reactions that
might not otherwise surface.
a facilitator: Since the overall process is fairly complex, and
involves significant preparation and follow-up, using an experienced
moderator is highly recommended. This also helps ensure the neutrality
of the facilitator as an independent third party. Effective facilitators
often have training in psychology, communication, open-ended interviewing,
group dynamics, and/or active listening. Their ultimate job during a
session is to develop group rapport and promote an atmosphere of trust
and spontaneity, allowing participants to feel comfortable disclosing
personal information and reactions. Experienced facilitators attempt
to blend in with the participants to become a "beige"
personality while encouraging the group members to speak up. Ideally,
the facilitators will share some demographic characteristics with participants.
Differences in ages, gender, and other characteristics can sometimes
disrupt the discussion process. When designing a focus group project,
the researcher should give thought to the demographic makeup of the
group and how best to achieve some homogeneity in the final panel. Trial
and error may reveal the best mix of participants for a particular study.
Depending on the purpose of the session, it may require recruiting a
fairly narrow spectrum of participants (for example, only middle-aged
females who shop at one particular store). Participants should not
know each other in advance, since they're actually less likely to be
candid around friends and acquaintances than they are around strangers.
Participant screening and recruitment frequently occurs by phone some
10-14 days in advance. Prospective participants should be randomly selected,
such as from a phone book or from a database of previous participants
and referrals. Clients may request that participants be drawn from a
specific pool of customers or businesses, but that pool must be large
enough to allow for disqualifications due to schedule or interest conflicts.
Incentive payments can range from $50 to $75 for a typical two-hour
participants: Recruiters seek people who meet the specific demographic
or product usage criteria. They should not be people who know each other
or have previously participated in the same or similar study.
discussion questions: The facilitator usually works with the client
in advance to identify goals and determine the questions to pose. Usually,
only about five or six key questions from the list can be adequately
discussed in a two-hour period. The facilitator also may want to become
relatively familiar with any technical or proprietary jargon before
focus group sessions
level: The facilitator's main job is to draw out the participants
so each person feels comfortable participating in the discussion.
The facilitator may subtly need to give more eye contact to quieter
people and less eye contact to more verbal members, for example, to
keep the discussion balanced. Seating the participants at varying
distances away from the facilitator is one way to control the amount
of eye contact.
up phase: An important aspect of focus groups is getting participants
calibrated. To help achieve optimal comfort and balanced
participation, the facilitator may spend the first half of the focus
group session engaging the group in low-key warm-up conversation.
Once the participants seem ready, the facilitator begins asking the
predefined questions, but in as natural a way as possible (that is,
minimally referring to notes). For sessions designed to evaluate products,
the facilitator may pass around samples for participants to handle.
Questions can include how much participants think the products cost,
and any features they like or dislike. The facilitator asks spontaneous
follow-up questions that draw out more detail as the participants
bounce ideas off of each other. However, he or she must know when
to be silent and wait for the group to respond, rather than try to
carry on a constant conversation.
and recording: In customized focus group facilities, observers
view the session from an adjacent room through a one-way mirror. In
environments without mirrors, sessions are videotaped with the live
output displayed on a TV monitor in a nearby room. In either case,
executives or focus group sponsors may be present to covertly observe
the sessions, and may even join the session at the end to actually
meet and chat with the participants. Typically, focus groups are audio
and videotaped for later review.
up, and combining techniques
Analyzing and using data: Robyn's wrap-up procedure typically
entails reviewing the video tapes and preparing a report based on
her team's findings of the major themes in the discussion. If the
budget allows, she will also have a transcript prepared. The report
may include video clips relating to each theme, and an audio recording
of the entire session. The level of detail provided in the report
varies from client to client. One of the client's uses of the summary
data may be to better identify the ideal target market for a particular
product or service.
calls: Occasionally, it's appropriate to follow up with participants
by phone about two weeks after the session. The purpose would be to
check whether each participant still feels positively about a given
product, for example.
sessions: Because an individual focus group can be an anomaly,
Robyn recommends the completion of at least two sessions on a given
topic. Such a design allows verification of themes from group to group
and provides more reliable information. To help verify conclusions
derived from a given project, clients sometimes commission subsequent
sessions to discuss the same topic. Although subsequent groups typically
don't involve the same people, each group should be drawn from the
same demographic pool.
techniques: Since group discussion can influence participant responses
to some extent, it's a good idea to use focus groups in conjunction
with other types of studies. Other research methods also can shed
light on different aspects of the same topic. For example:
the Web Associates model, a qualitative study might
kick off the process in the form of a focus group (which entails
collecting opinions in a dynamic, observational mode and analyzing
the information more intuitively). This research may continue
with a quantitative study using a survey (which entails
collecting the opinions of a reasonably large group of people
through a structured instrument, and analyzing the data statistically).
Any ambiguities in the quantitative study results
may call for another qualitative study (such as
a focus group) to clarify the findings.
the hybrid Cal Poly model, individual participants first
test the usability of a Web site, then complete a questionnaire.
They then provide more feedback in a focus group setting
where they can jointly review and discuss aspects of the Web site
while viewing it via a projection system.
are powerful tools that can provide insights into public opinion as
no other technique can. As research-based methodologies, they require
relatively sophisticated protocols for many purposes for which they're
used. But as the Cal Poly panelists have shown, they can be combined
with other techniques in flexible and relatively informal ways to achieve
rich results. These hybrid approaches appear to represent the cutting
edge of research design for specialized purposes such as usability testing.
provided by Robyn Letters.