Like many, I have had to adapt to running every business meeting by web conference, often on platforms like Zoom, Join Me, Webex & Teams. But also, like many, I have experienced greater tiredness on days when I have back to back meetings. Indeed, the BBC recently published an article explaining why this might be the case. For qual researchers, this has greater pertinence when thinking about how to run — and moderate — video qual research online.
I also had the pleasure of being a participant for a video-chat focus group — as part of an intro to video focus groups webinar that FlexMR ran. I was struck at how relaxing and easy the experience as a participant was, when compared to my Zoom meetings. Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t responsible for running anything, but maybe that is the key learning. A great online focus group must relieve the participant of any extraordinary stress and anxiety; make it easy for them through the moderator taking control.
A Comparison of Focus Group Options
As many qual researchers have recently turned to platforms like Zoom, I felt that understanding what made me more relaxed as a participant was worth digging more into. In fact, this experience led me to compare the benefits of using a dedicated, purpose-built online focus group facility versus a more standardised web-conferencing platform.
Let’s look at the key reasons behind my experience:
- I think the key thing for me was being presented with a simple and clear interface. Zoom gets a lot of plaudits for stripping back the menus and putting emphasis on the faces and promoting the face that is speaking. But that can introduce a lot of stress for participants, that aren’t used to the experience. In a dedicated focus group space, I didn’t have to cope with understanding lots of different icons, options and choices. The system presents itself with clear areas that inform the participant of the stimuli that is showing, who is taking part and the show of hands quick polling. Clarity with zero learning curve.
- I wasn’t confused by the faces altering all of the time, which in turn reduced the extra stress and effort that the BBC article discusses. The focus group facility promotes the group, so that I can see every member in an array of small tiles, making it easy to see the group and feel like a member of the group. It also doesn’t make me stare at myself (my stream is hidden in a different tab), which at first, for me, was odd. But I soon warmed to the fact that I didn’t have to see myself and instead focussed on the other members.
- The moderator is in complete control. They choose when to share stimuli, run quick polls, mute individuals or the group. The participant doesn’t have to worry, but also, the moderator can run the group to their topic guide with ease, allotting specific time to different elements of the discussion and moving through the stimuli at the right pace.
- The moderator is always streamed. This is a really important point for me. If running a group in Zoom, the way you have to show stimuli is by sharing your screen. So what? (I hear you ask.) It sounds like a small point but actually in a focus group, it really matters. A research interview or group is meant to be personal. The value of a professional moderator is their ability to create rapport, to ask questions and to open participants up. You can’t do this if you are hidden behind your shared screen! Throughout the session, the moderator is always present because of the way the screen is designed.
- The client-observation room. Again, another really important point. If clients or stakeholders want to observe a web-conferencing focus group, then they have to join too and put themselves on mute. That’s like hiring a focus group facility and sitting your stakeholders sitting in the corner. You just wouldn’t do that! Dedicated focus group tools come with a virtual two-way mirror, meaning clients can log-in separately, without participants being aware — again reducing potential anxieties. For your observers, they also need to interact, so they have their own viewing room where they can chat and discuss between themselves, whilst they watch the group.
- Integration with a research platform. Again, this might seem like a small point, but it really makes quite a difference. Firstly, to the participant experience; as soon as they log-in they get a branded and smooth experience, with a homepage designed to inform them about the project, give client or agency branding as needed and to also answer supporting tasks/questions. A key benefit of online groups is the ability to combine with pre or post tasks — visit a website beforehand, record a short video vox-pop introduction to themselves, collaborate on an image discussion, familiarise themselves with the topic or even complete a week-long diary. The participant experience is seamless and feels totally secure. Plus, you get the benefit of uploading key information from the participant screener so you and your observers know more about participants as they watch.
Overall, the experience in the dedicated focus group facility is more human. It places the moderator and the quality of discussion at the centre of the group and promotes the views of each participant. The purpose of qual research is the moderation and the questioning and using a dedicated tool really does support this, even if our ‘go-to’ solution at first seems to be the web conferencing platforms like Zoom.
So, what is the benefit of using Zoom? That seems to be scale. We advise — and even restrict — the size of a video session to four participants and a moderator. That is a deliberate decision based on our experience of running groups where the interaction between members becomes stilted, reduced to a quick Q&A style of interaction, where people’s connectivity struggles with bandwidth and creates delays and where people talk over each other a lot.
The purpose of a focus group or depth interview is the depth of discussion, the value of the shared interaction and in our experience, you can’t get that if you have more than four participants. So, yes, if you want to ‘broadcast’ questions to a large group, then use Zoom, because, after all, that is a web-conference and not a focus group.
As with any discussion of this nature, there’s merit to both sides. But in my experience, and opinion, while web-conference provides a serviceable and speedy stop-gap for adjusting to online focus groups — a dedicated focus group tool provides the best long term solution & experience for both participants and researchers alike.
The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.