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5 Tips for Conducting Focus Groups

Imagine this: You are the owner of a local restaurant and want feedback from customers to help you improve the dining experience. You recently conducted a customer feedback survey. The survey was helping in quickly gauging the satisfaction of your customers. However, you noticed that two different dining parties marked 3 out of 10 for quality. What did they mean? Was something wrong with the food or service? Were they expecting something different? In this case, a focus groups may be far more effective in getting you the answers you need to make decisions.

Group interviews and focus groups (I’ll mostly call these focus groups from here on) are a great way to get multiple perspectives all at once and in a social situation. A Focus Group is different from a group interview because it involves an intentionally created group. Focus groups are essentially group interviews with more control over who participates. This way you can try to get diverse opinions from a variety of people.

An interview is a survey done in person. It can feel a lot more personal and humanizing. Afterall, no one would watch a cable news exclusive of a celebrity filling out a questionnaire. Additionally, interviews can also uncover answers people would not normally write down and allows researchers to observe non-verbal cues in addition to subject’s opinions. Interviews are especially effective when it is necessary to get a group response, especially if you own a business that people typically visit in groups like a restaurant. Interviews in a group setting capture a social element potentially important to your business or organization.

Fewer questions can be answered in interview form than can be answered through a survey in the same amount of time. Interviews can easily run long, especially with a talkative participant or group. This means fewer questions but deeper, more detailed answers. You have to decide if you’re looking for breadth or depth of information.

Group Interviews can be formally structured, informal and unstructured, or fall somewhere in the middle. A structured interview involves very careful asking and answering from participants in turn. An unstructured or informal interview flows much more like a conversation. In any case, remember to remain focused on the key questions whether or not you are following a strict script. Structured interviews are best used in cases when time is a factor and you have multiple areas to cover in the interview, so as not to waste anyone’s time. Unstructured interviews are more effective when you have only a few topics to cover and are interested in a deeper, more detailed understanding of the customer’s opinion or thoughts on the subject. Again, it’s up to you.

Here are a few tips for conducting a Group Interview or Focus Group:

1. Remember to Listen

It seems like a simple idea, but I’ve seen researchers speak more than the participants they were interviewing. Study how reporters conduct interviews. Learn simple techniques that the press uses to draw out more information, such as remaining quiet for a few seconds after the subject has answered. Often the participant will go into more detail about the question just to fill in the perceived awkward silence. These kind of subtle changes to interview skills can reveal details otherwise undiscovered.

2. Use a Script

For more structured interviews, create a script. This is similar to what fundraisers and telemarketers do when they call and annoy people at dinner. There is a set list of greetings, positive statements, and ways to ask for donations or offer services, and finally rebuttals to a person’s objections. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes telemarketing so effective, simply because of a ten-page script of phrases. In structured interviews, it’s best to have one of these. But even if it will be an informal focus group, have a set of questions ready.

3. Capture Lots of Detail

As one person it is difficult to both facilitate the group by asking questions and calling on participants as well as capture all the details you’ll need to make meaning from the groups’ responses. Consider recording the session using audio/visual equipment, but only if the participants are aware and agree to it ahead of time. Some people may not be comfortable with being recorded, especially depending on the topic. Another, often easier, option is to have a second person present at the session to take detailed notes. This is especially helpful in group interviews.

4. Minimize Distractions

Make sure the interviews take place in a location free of distraction. If you own a store or office and you need a location for the interviews, use the back room or an unoccupied office. It is a little more expensive, but there are usually facilities that you can rent near major metropolitan areas that are designed to be used to conduct interviews. These are usually wired for audio and visual recording. Some even come with two-way mirrors to observe the group without being in the room. A quiet location reduces distraction and eliminates some of the bias created when interviewing someone about the same store they are standing in. If the customer can see the merchandise, they are more likely to give an overly positive response about the service.

5. Don’t Go It Alone

As the business owner or person seeking answers, you should not directly facilitate the focus group yourself. Much in the same way that people don’t want to speak ill of your products standing next to them, they are also likely to not want to insult you to your face. A skewed focus group won’t give you the tough feedback needed to find errors and improve your products or services. This doesn’t always mean hiring a professional. Ask a trusted employee or friend to facilitate your focus group. Link up with another business owner and do focus groups for each other. The most important thing is that participants feel like they can be honest with whoever is facilitating the session.

Ultimately, focus groups, group interviews, interviews in general, come natural to most people. Afterall, it’s basically a conversation with a few rules attached. Try to remember that the purpose of this is to capture the information lost in a sterile survey. Surveys can answer the “what” of a research question. They often struggle with the “why.”

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