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How to fix broken focus groups

How to fix broken focus groups


The more we learn from behavioural sciences about how the mind works, and how we have evolved as social animals, the more it’s clear we need to look again at how to do focus groups.

We must ask ourselves: is doing groups a valid way to answer our questions?

Yes, and no, is my answer to that question…

Yes, because we have ‘social selves’. We make decisions and behave with one eye on ‘the other ones’. Having other people around us delivers creative connections that don’t happen in the same way when we are on our own. Having others around us can influence our thinking (the group effect) which is an interesting dynamic to explore too.

No, because we ‘do’ behaviour, and we aren’t aware of that doing in a straight-forward way. Our minds construct a story about our own behaviour that isn’t in touch with the non conscious part of our minds.

We are susceptible to all sorts of influences at the point of doing that impact on our behaviour. (We all know about the effect of shopping hungry… we can talk about it, but unless we’re hungry and shopping, we won’t be able to reveal what our choices are.)

We can’t know our future selves. A few years ago I asked a bunch of men about using cloud based technology. They all, to a man, said they wouldn’t use it. I knew, my client knew, that was really unlikely, but my respondents weren’t equipped to know what the future would be like, and they were essentially saying: based on me, here, today. No I wouldn’t.

Perhaps the ‘no’s outweigh the ‘yes’s’ then?

Maybe, and I’m certainly running a lot fewer groups than five years ago. However, I think groups do have value when we want to exploit group dynamics to build ideas.

So here are my five rules for fixing the broken bits in focus groups…

1. Put decision making at the heart of the discussion: by this I mean get people to actually make some decisions in the group so you can see what they are weighing up, what they are rejecting, what they are noticing. Once we’ve got them making decisions (by playing choice games, for example). Then we need to ask the right questions about their decisions. Questions based on how the mind works when we are making decisions like: what were you weighing up? What was the risk? We need to avoid ‘wrong’ questions like… why did you do that – questions which encourage people to rationalise or justify their behaviour.

2. Prime knowingly: Groups run in the standard way prime respondents inadvertently. In a standard warm-up and preamble moderators get respondents to chat about their behaviour, and this encourages them to make all sorts of claims that a) help them jostle for their place in the group (preen; pimp; posture; recede; self-deprecate; clown; spoof; and many other ways to become self-conscious) and b) rationalise their behaviour, even in the worse cases openly lie about their behaviour – _oh yeah, I buy extra light Lurpak spreadable all the time because…
_ but priming can be used well too. It can be used to put people back into the moment of decision, it can be used to put them in a creative state, and it can be used to get them to practise a way of thinking that will be needed in the group later…

3. Develop question protocols that reflect system 1 and 2 thinking. If we stay away from “why do you like that?” “why do you do that?” and tune into the way our minds work, and when our minds work at their best, we can get more reliable insight. People are better at judging and understanding others behaviour than their own because their social selves spend a lot of time (sub-consciously) figuring out what’s going on with others. So asking about other people’s reactions can yield better insight. Accessing people’s visceral responses is useful. Tuning into the associative parts of our brains is good too (we are made for metaphor). If we understand how the mind works we can design better ways of asking questions…

4. Exploit group dynamics to build ideas: group discussions can get to the ‘performing’ stage where together the group builds and develops ideas. Group discussions can crackle with electric thinking.

5. Explore the social self in groups: we are made to tell and hear stories. Good group discussions will build this into stimulus. Going back to the discussion I had a few years back on ‘the cloud’ and ‘do you think you’ll use that technology?’ What if I’d written a concept like it was a story about the near future, and I’d explained that this was the way most people did things, and I’d explained that technology had got so good that file sizes were huge, and I’d shown one guy enjoying the benefits of cloud based technology? Then what if I’d said: who do you know who will get on board with that kind of technology first… and I’d taken the conversation from there..?

Groups done without reference to how ‘we are’ probably are broken…but groups done thoughtfully, creatively – they can deliver inspiring ideas that will help start to answer the questions your business is asking.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic. It’s one I think about a lot! Do get in touch


Kath Rhodes, Qual Street Owner

I love love learning and so I invest time and resources with Ambreen and Claire into exploring social psychology, neuro science, creativity and new techniques in research. Read all about it and help yourself to the ideas that will deliver your business the insight it needs

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@Qualstreet on 12 March 2019