SIX LESSONS LEARNED FROM LEADING 6,000 FOCUS GROUPS- LESSON 4

Maintain research rigor not research rigidity

There are key requirements in survey research that require a strong measure of research rigidity as any deviation changes the outcome of the study. For example, every question should be asked of every respondent, honoring the correct path through skip patterns. As well, the interviewer is not supposed to rephrase any questions, or offer additional options for answering.  As well, there are strict sanctions against making each interview a “unique experience.” Conformity and exact replication is the name of the game in survey research.

By contrast qualitative research embraces the unique quality of individuals. Questions can be reframed on the spot, techniques are used to inspire respondents to think about things in new ways, and in focus group settings respondents are praised for building on the comments of others.

In some ways a survey study is similar to seeing a train on a track and making sure the train stays on the track from station to station. Qualitative research may start out like a train on a track, but passengers can always choose to get off, ride a horse for part of the journey, step aboard a boat for a water ride, or just walk from point to point. There are many different ways to get to the next station on the journey.

A good moderator learns to manage the different forms of transportation [train, horse, boat, etc.] and stay with respondents as they go on the journey outlined by the moderator’s questions. The best moderators are at ease doing the following:

  • Knowing when to probe and when to move on
  • Knowing when to “live with the silence” while respondents are thinking
  • Knowing when to stand down when the topic gets too personal or invasive
  • Asking questions out of order because of the energy created in a line of discussion
  • Trusting their own judgment to explore a tangent because they know that area is of interest to the long range thinking of the client team
  • Knowing when to cut off an unproductive tangent
  • Managing the time line, so key questions get asked; being ok with the possibility that every group will not be asked every question

The necessary rigidity required to be good as a survey interviewer is deadly when applied to qualitative interviewing. Similar to an eagle that soars with the updrafts in a canyon, so must the good moderator rise on the wind of the discussion.  However, there needs to be research rigor in the process of interviewing and that includes:

  1. Following the four stages of an interview in order [Introduction; Rapport and Reconnaissance; In–depth Investigation; Closure]
  2. Moving from general to specific questions
  3. Probing for clarity
  4. Finding ways to get below top-of-mind answers
  5. Providing opportunities for respondents to think about topics in new ways

In summary, this is what is required to be a good moderator:  A framework of research rigor that honors the boundaries of qualitative interviewing, but not straying over to the research rigidity that is required for survey interviewing.

Final Thoughts:

Some final elements to remember about being a good researcher in your next project:

  1. You can always do better than in the past
  2. You have a new opportunity to demonstrate “mastery” In every group you lead
  3. Serve this client’s needs in this moment – truly being present and of service at this point in time and more opportunities will present themselves to do it again.
  4. Have research rigor, not research rigidity
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