The Power of Understanding Context in Focus Groups

Focus group sessions can be divided into two distinct areas: content and context. The content of a qualitative session covers the topic to be discussed; the questions used to achieve the purpose of the session; and the processes, activities and discussions by participants.

However, none of the above is possible without a context for a focus group or any qualitative research event. Context is an “invisible intangible” making it hard to spot or see unless you are specifically looking for it.

One definition of context is: “The interrelated condition in which something exists or occurs.”  In practical terms think of a bowl of salad: The salad ingredients are the process – the lettuce, tomato, cucumber. The bowl is the context….holding it all in one place waiting for the dressing before being served.

The context of a focus group can be viewed as a really big salad bowl physically bound by three walls and the fourth wall holding a large mirror.  It is philosophically bound by a clear purpose statement for the research to be conducted.

The participants, the moderator’s guide, the exercises/activities conducted, the visual displays [e.g., storyboards, concepts, prototypes, ads, etc.] are all like salad ingredients tucked amid the lettuce in the bowl.  All of this is process.

Peering into the bowl, trying to see how participants think and feel are the observers/ clients who want to hear the “voice of the consumer” to help understand how to plan short and long terms strategies.

What are the elements that help create an effective context so the process of qualitative research is conducted well?  

  • Write a clear purpose statement that can be achieved in a research environment
  • Know the intended use of the research findings- What’s going to happen after the study is over
  • Understand what assumptions are being held (by moderator/ client/ observers) about the participants being interviewed

When these three elements are in place, a clear context is established and whatever processes are conducted with respondents, the frame doesn’t waver or change. In that way, trends can be detected, illustrative quotes that support qualitative analysis can be gleaned and the true power of Qualitative Research is realized: “When you know how the target market thinks and understand what they believe, there is a greater chance of selling them more goods and services.”

When the context of a focus is clear, all the attention can then be directed towards making sure that all processes related to that group event are of the highest quality- from screener development to final report. When the context is murky, it is easy to be sidetracked by a talkative respondent, a tired moderator or indifferent clients.

A wise moderator is one that spends quality time on creating context so that process can unfold with ease.


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