This is a first of a series called Mindful Moderating that will look at different areas of moderating and possibly challenge some beliefs of researchers. This article addresses the portion of the group that encompasses the introduction given by the moderator at the very beginning of the focus group.
As a focus group convenes, the respondents come together with members unsure of what a focus group is and how it differs from a presentation or other form of group activity. Many are uncertain of what to expect and carry a concern about making a mistake in behavior or performance that will leave them embarrassed or even laughed at by the moderator, other respondents, or the client.
Some moderators express concern about doing “all that talking” up front feeling uncomfortable that all eyes are on them as if they were giving a speech. But thinking about the respondents in a mindful way reveals the true purpose of this portion of the group. That purpose is to project a sense of order and planning into the minds of the participants allowing them to more comfortably relinquish control and guidance into the hands of the group leader. This time used by the moderator may feel like too long when weighed against the sheer number of questions in the guide. However, the payoff comes from a greatly increased comfort level of group members, allowing them to get below top-of-mind answers quicker and deeper.
Trite Phrases: a remark, opinion, or idea overused and consequently of little importance; lacking originality or freshness. (Source: The Oxford Pocket of Current English)
In training thousands of moderators over the last 30+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe this process many times. There are a number of phrases uttered by moderators that are tossed around and passed along from moderator to moderator without anyone examining the phrase to see if it actually makes sense.
“No right or wrong answers.” Among the thousands of students I have trained over the years, this phrase is quite popular. What is meant by saying this? The moderator seems to be telling the respondents they don’t have to give answers that please the moderator or give factual information like that in a test. But if you look at the phrase carefully you see it tells respondents there are no right answers as well as there are no wrong answers, leaving no answers – so what can they say?
Far better to focus on the fact that participants will be talking about Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs, and Attitudes (POBAs) and there is no way they can be incorrect in their experience. Following are two mindful, non-trite ways to deliver the information that you want to hear their personal experiences. Try them both and see which one feels best for you:
Resist the urge to combine the two thoughts.
“I didn’t design the things you will be seeing and you can say whatever you like – you can’t offend me.” “I won’t get a raise if you like it or fired if you don’t like it.” Somewhere in the lost archives of focus group history, a moderator once mentioned neither getting a raise nor fired as a way to distance themselves from the concepts being shown later in the group. Since then it has been repeated ad infinitum. And, seriously, do you really want to tell respondents that they cannot offend you? A determined respondent can find something to say that is very offensive to you within minutes. These phrases are not wrong, but they are trite and have been repeated so many times the meaning is lost. It might be better to say something like:
“I want to hear your honest opinions as you look at and discuss these ideas.” If you have to ask someone to be honest, what is your embedded assumption? You are telling them you believe they will probably lie unless specifically asked not to do so. This does not create a place for candor. What creates candor in a focus group is a sense of security and respect for individual points of view, and regular reinforcement that all points of view are valid. Instead try:
“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule.” That sounds like a friendly thing to say, right? Except that this phrase takes people out of the mindset of the group and sends them directly into thoughts about what they should or could be doing instead of being in the focus group. Speaking mindfully, it is better to just thank people for being here today.
“You won’t see yourself on YouTube.” Again, this phrase has come up over the years as a way to say the recording is for research purposes only. However, when it is said, it raises this thought in the minds of the respondents: “Hmmm…wonder why she/he said that…I wasn’t worried about where this recording is going until he/she said that….” Now the respondent is thinking about something else other than the next set of comments or instructions the moderator is giving. It would be wise to indicate something like this:
“Don’t worry about the observers.”Like the phrase, “don’t think of pink elephants,” as soon as you say don’t, it is permission for respondents to think of exactly what you don’t want them to think of! Be straight with respondents regarding the role of observers. There are some phrases that might work:
This approach honors the observers [also called team members, research colleagues or any other phrase other than “client”], rather than diminishing them or implying the observers are there to keep an eye on the moderator. In addition, it doesn’t put any “don’t phrases” in the room.
Instead of rushing through the introductory comments by rote in the mad dash to get to the “real” topic of discussion, moderators would do well to begin paying attention to what it is they are telling respondents at the start of the group instead of just repeating what others have said. Remember also that continued practice of these phrases make them phrased more naturally and uses less time at the start of the group. Mindfulness at this portion of the group sets the stage for richer, more in-depth discussions.
Last week I read with some interest a Research Access article titled, “Are Focus Groups an Endangered Species?” As a seasoned, long time moderator, (having led more than 6,000 focus groups since 1978), a trainer of moderators, and an author, I am obviously quite alarmed at the idea that focus groups should be considered a dinosaur or endangered species.
I will wholeheartedly agree that all focus groups don’t work – they can go wrong for a number of reasons and they can be misused by observers. However, every industry has some flukes; the car industry continues to make cars even though some cars are lemons. They don’t stop making cars because some of them are not working as designed.
The first focus groups were held in America in 1937. In the three-quarters of a century since those first groups, focus groups have undergone a number of transformations as a research methodology as outlined in the chart below:
The qualitative research game changed a lot over the last seven decades and with the advent of additional technologies, even more adaptations will continue to be made in the qualitative arena.
Every now and then an article comes out in the press entitled: “Is God Dead?” and it goes on to report issues around the moral decay in the world. Those articles seldom report the growth of church membership in times of crisis, the role that religion plays in handling stress, or how religion provides millions with a moral center to face the challenges of a modern world. In the same way, one should be careful in reading a report on the “death of focus groups” as there is always another side to every story. I believe focus groups are, in fact, thriving and will continue to be applied to new situations over the coming years.
Many arguments against focus groups result from a misunderstanding of the limits of focus group qualitative research.
The argument of Inherent bias: I completely agree that there exists a bias in focus groups and that respondents may sway each other. But a skilled moderator knows how to set a context for avoiding bias. Many believe that the purpose of a focus group is to reach consensus…wrong, on every count. Focus groups with 8 participants, handled correctly, can achieve eight different points of view! There is never a reason to reach consensus in a focus group.
The very nature of focus groups is their subjective biases: convenience samples, paid respondents, and a fixed line of questions. So you may wonder, what’s the point? Because what counts in life, cannot be counted. Try to scale or measure love, patriotism, or brand loyalty. Try to count up a tally of what it means to own a dog or keep a Ford Mustang for 40 years. What counts, cannot be quantified and hearing that information trumps any biases that might be present.
The argument of Small sample sizes: There is never a reason to project the findings of 24, 36, or 48 people in focus groups to a universe and make a quantitative summary. The whole point of focus groups is to understand language, motivators, drivers, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which then can go into the development of quantitative surveys where projections can be made.
To call “small sample sizes” a fault of focus groups is to misunderstand the role of qualitative research. Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers and provides insights that help decision-makers see the whole picture. Any client that would make a marketing decision based on 30 people is delusional and any moderator who supports that thinking is misguided at best and harmful at worst. Qualitative and quantitative research are like two sides of a hand. The quant is the back where the bones and sinews can be easily seen. The soft palm is qual research that possesses the ability to hold something with care. Both are critical to the whole picture of market research.
The argument of Time consuming and expensive to do it right. Yes, qualitative research takes time and is expensive – I have no argument with that premise. I also know that some of the finer things in life take time and cost a lot of money. A good example is aged whiskey. Moonshine can be made in one day and aged one night. But a good single malt scotch, aged 12 years or more, is smooth and satisfying. A lump of coal burns fast and hot, but that same lump pressed under tons of earth for centuries will turn into a diamond and is priceless. Qualitative research takes time but when you know how the target market thinks, you can sell more products and services. In the long run, a little more time with consumers at the front end of a process can send huge dividends to the bottom line.
Naomi writes more about her experiences as a Master Moderator in her book, Secrets of a Master Moderator.