The Role of Focus Groups in our Quest for Expressive Data

Data tells a story. As researchers, our role is to explore this story on behalf of stakeholders. Sometimes this is as simple as testing customer preference on, for example, tangible physical attributes:

‘Do you prefer the green or the blue?’

‘How likely on a scale from 1 to 10 would you be to pick this packaging from a supermarket shelf?’

This form of research is great for a quick snapshot of customer preference and behaviour.

However, there’s a story and a journey behind these choices that we don’t see unless we dig a little further. By understanding this journey, the researcher is able to identify where a customer is won or lost. As such, in-depth market research looks beyond testing to seek out expressive data — data that accurately represents the customer’s voice in conversation with the product, concept or stakeholder, but also explores ‘why’ consumers behave a certain way.

Expressive data is the difference between the surface-level insights and in-depth, rich insights. How can focus groups help us on our way to attaining that important expressive data?

There are many tools in a researcher’s kit to help a stakeholder better understand customer behaviour: Question Boards, Report Cards, Diary Studies, Surveys, Polls, Forums, Focus Groups and IDI’s form just part of the toolkit we employ at FlexMR. Each of these has a vital role to play in connecting stakeholders with participants. For me, though, focus groups in particular can be the driving force behind a successful research journey.

The Value of Focus Groups

The generation of unexpected ideas and interpretation is a key output and benefit of focus groups. When a researcher, as a moderator, is able to create and curate a genuinely communal atmosphere within a focus group, we are able to observe elements of participant behaviour that we don’t normally access. The moderator guides participant interaction, managing the mix of more and less dominant characters; but it is the interaction between participants discussing concepts and products that can provide the most insight.

As per Kitzinger (1995), a focus group ‘capitalises on communication between research participants in order to generate data’. While this is also possible through tools such as online forums, focus groups allow the generation of a more complete data set, capturing tone and physical reaction. Group interaction and collection of non-verbal data are an inherent part of the focus group method, rather than a by-product. When seeking expressive data, natural reactions to concepts are the most honest, and as such the most insightful. Through effective moderation, then, a researcher is able to generate organic outputs.

Group members can interact with each other over the subject matter in a way a researcher cannot. Participants in a properly curated atmosphere can joke with each other, share anecdotes, share unexpected experiences — and even argue; all of these natural interactions gives insight into how concepts and product ideas perform in a community space, and allows the researcher to operationalise consensus and dissent to generate valuable organic data.

There are, of course, limitations and drawbacks to the focus group approach. For example, sessions are time-limited, and sharing this time between multiple participants means a focus group is not an ideal vehicle to fully deep-dive into concepts to the same degree as an in-depth interview.

As a second example, there are always concerns about participants fully disclosing data (e.g. personal habits that they would rather not discuss in front of a group), which means that focus groups can run the risk of not being a particularly productive vehicle for topics such as personal hygiene or moral decision-making. That said, an effectively moderated group can also facilitate discussion of ‘personal’ or ethical topics if either the moderator or a comparatively uninhibited group member broaches the topic and sets a precedent of open discussion.

This segues into another key consideration: effective group management. A poorly moderated focus group, particular one too reliant upon rigid scripting, does not generate open interaction between participants and therefore will not generate the valuable organic data and insight that we’re looking for.

Focus Groups as Part of a Research Toolkit

Earlier I mentioned the successful research journey; organic data is generated through tools such as focus groups in this journey. These tools access the customer voice, providing value through interaction in a shared environment.

Focus groups are often used as a tool to verify research findings, but focus groups can be just as useful (if not more so) earlier in the research journey.

At the beginning of this blog, I discussed the story and journey behind customer preferences and behaviour. When conducting a survey, poll or even a qualitative method such as a question board, we see only a snapshot of a customer’s story. However, if a researcher is able to use a focus group to inform the design of other research materials, we are able to ask consumers questions that are formulated and informed by other consumers.

As an example, a stakeholder could be trying to explore certain key metrics about a product:

  • How do consumers use this product?

A common approach to this would be for the stakeholder to make suppositions about consumer behaviour and ‘test’ these suppositions to confirm; however, this approach runs the risk of missing key consumer behaviours and insights. The value of a focus group in this circumstance is generation of insights to test in, for example, a survey.

By ensuring a representative sample, a focus group can be designed to generate answers to questions. For example, a survey can be designed as a skeleton, with answer options populated with data generated through the focus groups. Using the product example above, part of the focus group could explore ‘How do you tend to use our product?’. This question is then discussed in a conversational and informal manner, generating organic data on generic and often surprising ways a product is (and is not) used. These uses are then plugged into the survey design and tested with a wider audience. In terms of generating an insightful and appealing tagline for a product, ideas can be generated within the focus group and then tested within the survey, informing branding with ideas by the consumer, for the consumer.

Generating Expressive Data

In our effort to explore our data’s full story, and present the consumer’s voice in conversation with the product, focus groups are a simple, low-cost and effective solution. By connecting with the consumer’s voice as part of the research design process, our research insights can be as organic and genuine as possible while still including bulk testing of consumer behaviour.

This generates richer, in-depth insights that are both emotional and intuitive. By placing customers in conversation with both the subject and each other, we are able to give stakeholders significant and actionable data. Rather than drowning in the shallower bulk data that confirms hypotheses or tests pattern behaviour, stakeholders are then able to access in-depth customer insights that can challenge the assumptions made by product developers and marketing staff. There have been many occasions during a focus group that a stakeholder I am working with has discovered new applications or use barriers for their products that they had not previously considered. That said, focus groups are also a great medium to provide confirmation, as an agile script allows exploration of both consensus and difference within a single session.

When managed by an expert moderator, focus groups can play a unique role in generating expressive data that represents the consumer’s’ voice in an organisation.

The expressive data generated through a focus group is a powerful source of insight for decision-making, as a focus group can help us to understand why a participant reaches a decision, going beyond a simple understanding of the decision itself; we gain a deeper understanding of how a product or concept really fits into participants’ lives and experiences. These insights can then be actioned on a significant understanding of customers as people, increasing engagement between customer and brand. If a product or concept can be shown to have been developed with a genuine understanding of the target audience, it is intrinsically more appealing to the customer and generates greater brand loyalty.

As customer experience increasingly competes with price and product as the key brand differentiation metric, the more intimate and emotional datasets produced by actually talking to customers about the product (rather than simply testing factory-made hypotheses) are of ever-increasing value.

A poorly managed focus group can be next to useless; if a conversation is dominated by certain voices or overly-curated to a rigid script, there can be no organic generation of data. When a focus group is managed by an expert moderator though, it can play a unique role in the generation of expressive data that represents the consumer’s voice in interaction with a product or concept.

This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.