A Common Choice of Less-Experienced Research
Focus groups tend to be one of the "go to" choices for early-phase consumer research, many times because the methodology is common, and resources, such as facilities and moderators, are generally easy to locate. I would argue that focus groups are not well suited to the needs of early-phase innovation research, the type which we would be prone to conduct.
I've spent thousands of hours both "behind the glass" and "in the room" in research facilities conducting fieldwork of various types, and have had the occasion to both observe and participate as a member in focus groups. Even in the well-moderated sessions, I tended to come away thinking about how skewed the discussions tended to become, and how much I would have wanted to interview the participants one-on-one.
The effect of the focus group format on validity of findings as opposed to one-on-one depth interviews have received quite a bit of scholarly attention, and papers have been written exploring methodological issues with focus groups. This abstract from Boateng (2012) summarizes the findings of the overall body of research:
The efficacy of Focus Group Discussion as a qualitative data collection methodology is put on the line by empirically comparing and contrasting data from two FGD sessions and one-on-one interviews to ascertain the consistency in terms of data retrieved from respondents using these two data collection methodologies. The study is guided by the hypothesis that data obtained by FGD may be influenced by groupthink rather than individual respondents' perspectives. A critical scrutiny of the data that emanated from the two organized focus groups discussion departed quite significantly from the data that was elicited from the one-on-one qualitative interviews. The difference in responses confirms that FGDs are not fully insulated from the shackles of groupthink. It is recommended, among others, that though FGD can stand unilaterally as a research methodology for nonsensitive topics with no direct personal implications for respondents; researchers should be encouraged to adopt FGD in league with other methodologies in a form of triangulation or mixed methodological approach for a more quality data, bearing in mind the central role occupied by data in the scientific research process.
Furthermore, in my experiences, the group discussion format of focus groups tends to elicit the following behaviors, each of which has its own way of biasing or eroding the findings. (If the group is composed of 18-35 year-old males and females, multiply the biasing factor by 3):
- The Domineer. In a group setting, the domineer will tend to overtake the discussion, at times even acting as a deputy moderator. In rare cases, or with an inexperienced moderator, this person can take the discussion entirely off the rails, but the more common form tends to be that of steering the discussion.
- The Silent One. The polar opposite of The Domineer, this person will simply withdraw from the discussion (sometimes in response to The Domineer). In the research field, these participants are known as "Facility Wallpaper," as they tend to generally blend into the background, and will eat every available snack.
- The Genius. A close relative of The Domineer, this behavior will also result in overtaking conversations, but typically in very unrelated or odd tangents. This personality tends to want to be right in any discussion, or otherwise prove to be the most knowledgeable.
- The Critic. If testing prototypes, everything will be "horrible" or "dumb." While specific criticism is a primary goal of research, the critic will tend to wilt when asking for specifics of the criticism. This makes the feedback especially hard to analyze.
- The Lovefest. The opposite of The Critic, this person will love everything. If a brand is presented, they will go on at (unrelated) length about the brand and how they love everything they do. This person will not react specifically to the stimuli at hand, and tend to work in generalities.
- The Impractical Inventor. If you blended The Domineer, The Genius, and The Critic, you have The Impractical Inventor. Upon seeing a prototype, they will devise Rube Goldbergian solutions, or the idea that your packaging can be 'fixed' with 3D printing. Cost, practicality, or the current technology available to man are of no concern. Will derail the group into a wild ideation session.
- The Ad Exec. The blend of The Genius and The Critic, and cousin to The Impractical Inventor. This personality type will devise slogans in the meeting, and will probably be the one to add comments and revisions to your nicely mounted $300 ad concept boards with a Sharpie while you aren't looking.
My overall point with this example is that, much like any social gathering with people who do not know each other, when you get 8-12 people in a room in a single conversation, people "overact" or take on personality traits they otherwise would not. Impromptu caucuses will form before your eyes, as people with similar thoughts will band together.
I offer the following as a humorous example of some of the exhibited traits you might see in a focus group. Interestingly, the morning after this Saturday Night Live sketch aired, the consumer research world exploded in agreement and story as to how realistic "Linda" was! Please watch the following 6:49 video.
Video: Taste Test - SNL (6:49)
Where do focus groups "fit"?
If we break apart some of the research "jobs" we would likely need in evaluating ideas or early-phase concepts, the role of the focus group becomes more and more niche.
Exploring the space broadly.
Surveys do a better job at understanding the overall space than focus groups, and are far less expensive. Furthermore, you are receiving "clean data" in a survey, unbiased by social pressures of the group or groupthink.
Exploring the space deeply.
Individual interviews will give you far more depth than any focus group, while allowing the interviewer to explore topics and ideas of interest.
Prototype or usability testing.
Observation and ethnography will tell you more about use phase in real application. Individual interviews will tell you more about initial impressions of a prototype in a controlled environment, free from group biases.
Message or proposition testing in a live environment will provide far more realistic, specific, and practicable information.
This leaves us with focus groups being used as ideation sessions to generate ideas and creative. Needless to say, in these applications, focus groups may have far more in common with the SNL skit than you might like.