From time to time this section will have rants and raves, things that get our hackles up and things that we think you might find interesting in the world of Qualitative Research.

We’ve been perplexed by the propensity to demonize focus groups. It seems like every new methodology (or even every repackaged old methodology) feels the need to position itself against focus groups and, in doing so, cast “the focus group” in the role of market research villain.

To be clear, RABID does not specialize in conducting focus groups. We are a qualitative research company with an array of tools in our toolbox, and we’re probably best known for ethnographic research. But there are times when a focus group is really the best tool for the job, and when that’s the case, that’s what we’ll recommend.

A focus group is like a survey – it’s a tool, and that tool can be good or bad, helpful or useless, depending on how well or poorly the research is designed, fielded and analyzed. Focus groups, in and of themselves, are neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

There are certainly situations in which focus groups are absolutely not the right tool for the job, and if they are the tool chosen, the results are bound to be disastrous. And even in situations where they can be the right tool for the job, they are still a tool – the skill of the tool wielder and of the architect designing the project will determine if the results are accurate and insightful or misleading and useless.

For any research project to be successful (that is, to deliver insights that result in good business decisions), it needs to be well thought out, well-designed, well-implemented and well-analyzed. This applies equally to any methodology or research venue being used, whether that be qualitative or quantitative, and whether that be focus groups or online message boards or research using mobile phones or ethnographic research or...

All too often the focus group is blamed for sins of the researcher (or the sins of the research requestor), rather than for issues inherent in the methodology. All too often we hear the following reasons why focus groups are, allegedly, BAD.

One person can dominate a group

Not if the research is designed to control for that possibility, and not if the moderator is alert and capable of correcting for that potential issue. There are many ways of controlling a group conversation to eliminate the possibility of one individual dominating the group. Failing to do so is the fault of the moderator, not the method (or the venue).

A focus group room is an artificial setting

Yes, it is. And so is a respondent’s living room if there are suddenly a bunch of strangers in it. So is the respondent’s mobile phone if it’s being used in ways the respondent does not ordinarily use it. There are times when a “natural” setting can facilitate obtaining more accurate learning, but in most cases, there is nothing inherently stifling about a focus group room.

If the moderator has an in-depth understanding of group dynamics, is capable of creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere, and can develop an empathetic bond with each of his or her respondents, insights can be surfaced in almost any environment.

And the ability to record the research, to provide respondents with a place where they can engage in creative activities (like collage work, story-telling, etc.), and for the clients to observe the process in a way that does not disrupt the group interactions often far outweighs any gain that might be achieved from using a more so-called natural setting.

Respondents lie or posture or try to please the moderator (or their fellow respondents) in a focus group

All respondents, no matter the method or the venue, will do and say things that may not necessarily be truthful. There are two important reasons for this, and both of those reasons impact ALL forms of market research – not just focus groups.

The first reason this happens is that we, as human beings, are NEVER fully conscious of what we do and why we do it. We simply couldn’t function if we had to think through where we were going to put our foot down as we take each step walking down the hallway. And the reasons WHY we do what we do are invariably a combination of conscious, rational reasons and a host of subconscious or emotional reasons lurking below the surface.

The second reason, which is the one most often flung at focus groups as a specific criticism of the methodology, is that people modify their behaviors and censor what they say in an attempt to manage their social image. The reality is that this happens in EVERY form of market research – even if there is no visible or audible interaction with a researcher or another respondent. It happens in survey research. It happens in ethnographic research. It happens in online research, in interactive mobile research – in short, it is an inherent pitfall in research – not in the focus group methodology per se.

In the end, the quality of research results will be primarily dependent on two factors – the clarity of the learning objectives (including how that learning might be put to use by the organization requesting the research), and the skill of the researcher who is designing, implementing and analyzing it. If you use a hammer to cut down a tree, the effort will fail, and the same is true if you misuse any research method.