Do fewer questions make sense in a focus group?

Filed Under: Focus Groups, Multi-Modal Research, Qualitative Research, Quantitative Research


Bob Relihan

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

I have been conducting qualitative research for a long time. I recognize focus groups have a theoretical underpinning. They grew out at social sciences and the belief that a group could stimulate a wider range of responses and be less threatening than a single interviewer focused on a single individual. They are also related to group therapy, a way for a group of individuals to channel their unspoken concerns through a therapist. But, on the practical side, I have dealt with many marketers who need to ask just one more question, and who, at the last moment, want to explore packaging and price in groups about advertising.

So, I find it hard to imagine anyone who conducts focus groups would answer the question in my title with a, “Yes.”

But, I just read an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review blog in which Michael Schrage argues better quantitative data would be collected if fewer questions were asked. He goes so far as to suggest that long surveys are the product of “intellectual sloth.” Oh my! Yet, that is not my world of focus groups. Still, he makes a very interesting point. In a test of parallel surveys, the five-question instrument had more than eleven times the responses of the full twenty-five-question version. Eleven times!

I have struggled to recruit groups with more and more precise specifications and dealt with participants in groups who now feel it is perfectly normal to take breaks in the middle of the discussion — repeatedly. “More respondents with better answers” has a good deal of appeal whatever the venue.

How can I make “qualitative” research shorter and more “focused?”

  • I still believe fervently in the benefits and productivity of group interaction. The answer is not a boatload of individual interviews. But, I have come to realize that a one-hour, small group interview pared down to just two projective exercises, such as a group collage and category sort (the choice is yours!), can answer most of the questions one might have about a brand and its positioning. What’s more, you can conduct twice as many in the time of traditional focus groups. There is a good deal of comfort in basing your insights on twice as many observations.

This logic applies to a good number of qualitative methods. We love the immersive character of ethnographies. They ground us and the product team in authentic consumer behavior. But, do we really need to spend three hours in a home when all we really care about is how consumers make sandwiches?

  • But there is a more radical approach to “fewer, better questions.” We now have the tools to ask qualitative questions of large samples online. Consumers can create collages, sort products, and associate images with products or moods. In reality, any sort of qualitative exercise I have used “in front of the mirror” can be executed by consumers online. And, I will have a hundred collages to trigger insights. Better insights, higher confidence.

So, it may be time for the qualitative research to embrace the less is more mantra.

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