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THREE is a magic number

It’s fashionable these days to say research groups are out of fashion.

The argument goes that anything has to be better than eight respondents and a moderator chatting away in a characterless room, with a clutch of clients huddled the other side of a two-way mirror.

What’s bang in fashion are depths and ethnography.

It’s true, there are a number of things that are less than ideal about ‘standard focus groups’.

The first is that eight is too many. There will almost always be two people who gradually go silent, however much you try to keep them involved. Plus it really plays into the hands of people who like holding court.

The second is the setting is, of course, unnatural. There’s the waiting room, the uncomfortable chairs, the mirror, the microphones, the cameras and the faint smell of takeaways.

And thirdly, as with much research, you’re dealing with ‘claimed’ rather than ‘actual’. We all know those may not be the same thing, whether that’s behaviour, attitudes, perceptions, drivers, barriers or needs.

I think the only time eight works well is when it’s a creative session and you want to use breakouts. You get more ideas and people do seem to enjoy sharing their team’s ideas with a bigger group.

Otherwise, we never go bigger than six. As a moderator, you can then make sure everyone feels included in the discussion and that their input is being valued. Plus there’s no hiding.

You can then also hold the fieldwork in someone’s home. You can’t if lots of clients want to attend or you need to film or stream the groups. But if you can, with maybe one client tucked away in a corner, it’s almost always better than a viewing facility. Certainly more relaxed.

And on the ‘claimed’ versus ‘actual’ point, you just have to work round it, whether through pre-tasks or projections or games or stimulus.

Remember also that when someone is claiming they do or think or feel something which isn’t actually true, they are still telling you something about what matters to them.

Of course, depths aren’t perfect either. There’s a bit of a clue in the fact they are often called interviews. It can feel mighty uncomfortable sitting in front of a moderator who’s asking you searching questions on a subject to which you’ve probably never given any serious conscious thought. If ever a researcher needs empathy skills, it’s in a depth.

As for ethnography, it can be wonderful if you have the time and the money. There’s the discomfort factor here too, in spades, but the best practitioners find a way to blend in without being too creepy.

I’m a particular fan of getting client teams to do it, generally in the guise of an accompanied shop or a home visit. Yes, you dress it up as an interview. But what you emphasise is the observing.

Much of the time the ideal format for a qualitative research project lies between a group and a depth.

The mini group really does give you the best of both worlds. Small enough to be intimate, so people can be spoken to individually and encouraged into being more revealing. But big enough to have interaction and a group dynamic.

There will often be a concern from the client about the sample size and talking to not enough people can mean you’re misled, particularly if the target is broad. But real insight isn’t ultimately about numbers. It’s about listening to someone and hearing the truth.

So if I were being forced to use one single format for every qualitative project we do moving forward, I’d probably pick triads. There’s just some kind of magic to three. A cosy crowd.

Luckily, though, no one is forcing me.

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