Before explaining what focus group interviews are it may be useful to understand when to use them. I am going to explain this with the words of Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove, simple customer service software: “If you really want to get the insights you need – not data, but words – the best way to do that would be through having actual conversations with your customers.”
This is the clue of focus groups – to gain words, to learn insights. Focus groups allow researchers to drive deep to understand people’s answers. The seemingly naive questions ‘why do you think so?’, ‘what does it mean to you?’, ‘what would you feel if you lost it?’ etc. are the essence of the interviews. They allow to push participants to start thinking a bit more about their feelings, needs, and desires. In every day, busy life we often don’t have time to stop and think about our choices, reflect why we prefer one thing over another. We know exactly that something works for us or not, but it’s often habits of the environment that dictate the choices.
This is precious knowledge for businesses and the reason why you should conduct focus groups, not only settle for surveys.
So when to use focus groups? The answer is simple: when you want to learn insights and gain deep knowledge about something.
Focus group interviews are basically a supported, focused discussions. They are no more, no less than what you are doing every day – talking with people and listening and learning from their opinions, with the caveat that you are asking specific questions that aim to gain knowledge about a very specific topic.
Those questions are asked by a special person called “a moderator”. Who is this and can you become one?
A moderator is a person who knows how to create a natural situation for discussing the given topics. He or she knows how to create a relaxed atmosphere and make people forget about being in a research situation. Moderator doesn’t judge, doesn’t evaluate opinions and makes sure that everyone is allowed to speak up. They drive the conversation forward, making sure it stays focused on the topic and doesn’t deviate.
The greatest challenge for a good moderator is to build disclosure circumstances, when nobody is afraid to talk about their real feelings, fears and needs. A good practice to make it possible is to share some information about the participants as a group. It may be worth to tell them at the beginning of the interview some details about why they are meeting together in this particular interview, e.g. that they meet certain demographic criteria or share some behaviours of using a product. When people feel that they have something in common it is much easier to start a conversation.
Even if the main purpose of interview moderation is to manage the dynamics of the focus group, a moderator can as well stimulate discussion to achieve specific results, like creation of a new idea. In this context, a moderator rather facilitates the discussion instead of moderating it.
It is very often the moderator’s responsibility to prepare the script for the discussion, to conceptualize the research problem, define recruitment criteria and screen the respondents and then gather data, analyse them and write the final report. Much more than just moderating a discussion. In this context it is probably more accurate to call this role a Qualitative Research Consultant (QRC). Therole’s specific name does not matter much, but it explains what we expect from the person and what their tasks would be.
I hope this gives you a more general perspective and understanding of this job.
But what about our earlier question if you can do it yourself? The answer is not easy and depends on the range of work and your personal experience. You won’t know without trying, so I definitely encourage you to check for yourself! It might not be as hard as some think it is.
Focus groups are definitely not out of fashion. There are some research problems that cannot be solved by other methods. They have also evolved over the years. These days they are often longer, but involve a smaller group of people. Thanks to that it is possible to deepen the information and better understand the discussed issues.
Online moderated chat interviews (or online focus groups) are not a simple “copy-paste” of traditional face to face groups and they are far from everyday chats on Messenger, WhatsApp or other Internet communicators.
They can be a great, super-efficient tool in the pocket of marketing qualitative research methods.