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Dear Focus Group, We Need to Talk…

Dear Focus Group,

You were once the darling of my life. I was attracted to you for so many reasons: I could view my customers first hand, watch their reactions to my questions, get in-depth feedback to understand their perceptions, likes, dislikes and buying habits. You were cost-efficient; I could get the views of 8–10 people at once. Qual research was in the reach of any sized business. Was there anything that you couldn’t do?

But alas, times change. As the saying goes, “it’s not you, it’s me” that has changed. The world has moved on and unfortunately, I don’t believe you have. There are new research methods which mean your promise of ‘depth of understanding’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s a phrase you trot out too easily and too often, without stopping to really know what it means. After all, depth is the very point of qualitative research — its raison d’être. If this is the point, then I don’t believe you are the answer you once were.

That’s not to say I don’t believe in you at all. On the contrary, I can see cases where you would still put up a good fight. There are situations when I will miss you and wish you were there for me. When I need group creativity or want to watch a creative process in action, then I may well call. But even here, I can see others may be stealing a march on you.

Let’s look at your main argument, depth, in more detail. You so often cite the benefit that I can ‘see my customers’ when talking about depth. But is this the real depth that I need? Yes, I can see ‘the whites of their eyes’, but what can I do with that information? Yes, I can watch their body language, but in an artificial setting interacting with strangers. What does that actually tell me about them or my product? Too often, analysis is quick and superficial. Whatever you say, the reality is that analysis is limited to the recording or the transcript, we listen to what is said, we read the discussion, lift quotes, group them, theme them and order them. We create a narrative and story about what was said, not how it was said.

Depth in qualitative research is so much more than watching eight strangers who have never met interact. It is more than seeing how they react or discuss my product in an artificial, staged setting. I don’t want to watch performing seals in captivity, I want to see how they really interact with my product. How their behaviour changes in the environments in which they live. How their family and friends influence them. I want to know about them, as human beings, their lives — what matters and what doesn’t. I want real behaviour out in the wild, not performing seals!

Too often I have let my desire to watch and see people cloud my judgement. Too often I have let you convince me that this is depth. I didn’t notice that my view of the world was reducing in scope and understanding. The real world in which my customers live is far wider, more geographically spread than those artificial rooms in city centre locations, dictated by my travel itinerary. When I actually stopped to analyse the geographic (and demographic) spread of my customer base, I realised you were leading me astray. You didn’t really care for my needs, you misled me with your promise of convenience.

Has this always been the case? I ask myself this a lot. I think it has, but I didn’t have any alternative. Not really. Yes, I could have dispensed with you and gone straight into people’s homes myself. Or I could have hired people with video cameras to follow people go about their daily lives. But at what expense? OK, I admit it was my desire to control my costs that led me to you then. You were a far more efficient way to get me the feedback I needed within the timescales I demanded. Views from 20 people? “No problem” you said, “that can be done within your budget”. The other alternatives just weren’t even in the same ball-park!

All along it was cost that has kept me coming back. Not depth as you promised or I thought. It is here where your lie is the greatest. I admit to being seduced by cost and convenience. But the depth — that was such a compromise on what I thought it was!

“So where do I go now”, you ask? If depth is my complaint then I really must find ways to give me depth in a way that you never have. I will use individual and mobile diary studies, reflective discussions over several days, group brainstorms and community interactions. I will interweave the humble survey and go back to my roots and beliefs — that triangulation of methods adds real depth of understanding. I will unlock this by mixing both individual and group activities and I will reach out to watch people’s lives remotely. And I will ask them to report from their mobile devices to make it easier to share their lives with me.

How can I do this when I couldn’t before? I’m afraid this is where life has moved on. We all live online now, you see. We can get group interactions and creative tasks through online activities. I can get individual feedback from real lives via mobile, without dragging them into an artificial environment. I can ask them to reflect over a few days if I want a considered response; individually or as a group. If I want to ask questions dynamically then I can get them to convene in a version of your online self — the live chat focus group.

“You can’t see them”, you cry! I know. I understand that. But I can share their lives, see what they do and ask them for their views. All without being interrupted or stymied by others, from anywhere in the country (or world). I want to see their lives, not just the whites of their eyes. And, besides, if I do need to see them or put their views in front of my stakeholders then I can get a video vox-pop of them quickly and efficiently — whites of their eyes and from the context of their lives.

The cost, I hear you ask? No, I’m not just doing this to save money — but it won’t cost me more. Online, I can do all these different things for the same cost that you do your one same thing. I get more perspectives, from a wider set of people — for the same money. Cost is not my sole motivation, remember? I want real qual research, depth and understanding. So I am going to spend the same and get more. I am going to mix methodologies and I can do this all for the same cost as using you, my dear focus group.

Is that it? Are you finished as a productive part of the research process? No, I don’t think so. You may be a much smaller part of my life, but it is a niche that will always be needed. You still occupy a role and place that can add value, it’s just not one that is built around your old refrain about ‘depth’. It isn’t the new methods that are about cost and convenience anymore. They are the ones that promise real depth if treated well and with respect. It is you, my dear focus group, which needs to play the mantra of cost and convenience. After all, that is the real reason I have been with you for so long.

Best wishes and so long my faithful old friend.

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