I’ve never really liked the term ‘focus groups’.
I know I do them for a living. They’re also obviously ‘focused’ on a particular topic.
And there’ll always be that one objective that you as a moderator become more and more focused on.
But it still sounds like an interrogation. Like this scorching spotlight comes on above a respondent's head when they get asked that killer question.
“So how is it that you really want to feel? Is it safe?”
They used to be called ‘groups’, you know.
Or ‘discussion groups’. I still to this day encourage people to see it as a discussion and to jump in whenever they want to say something, particularly if it’s different to what someone else has just said.
I’m also upfront about why. I say it’s because then I’ll find out more about them. I see their true colours shining through.
But somewhere in the 90’s ‘groups’ became ‘focus groups’.
Part of it was to sound more legit. There have always been the same old criticisms of groups - people are less likely to be open and honest if they’re in a room with six strangers, one loudmouth always dominates the conversation, you can’t avoid bias in the interpretation.
It all comes back to that David Ogilvy quote: “people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, they don’t do what they say.”
There was also politics in the renaming. Labour under Tony Blair used ‘focus groups’ extensively. Apparently these days they’re more popular than ever in Westminster. You wouldn’t know it, would you?
The irony is that focusing hard on a subject with direct questions doesn’t actually work.
Most of what we’re trying to understand in qualitative research requires an indirect approach.
If people don’t do what they say, observe. That means ethnography.
If people don’t say what they think, use smaller groups. Three’s the magic number. And if you’re the moderator, make sure all three talk an equal amount. That’s your job.
If people don’t think how they feel, use some kind of projection to get to their feelings without them feeling self-conscious. That’s the trick.
So watch, listen and learn.
And remember the real world of behaviour and motivation is a blurry place where the truth can be hard to find.
It’s like how squinting can help you see fine details or distant objects.
Or how in glary conditions you can narrow your eyes to block out some of the light, making things easier to see.