Focus Groups Reconsidered
Focus groups have a poor reputation in the design community. They’ve been around since the 1940s and look increasingly old-fashioned against the prevailing wave of ethnographic techniques now in vogue. If you sort through a pack of IDEO method cards you’ll find focus groups omitted with prejudice.
The arguments against focus groups are well known, and my instructors at Carnegie Mellon railed against the technique, but I’ve never really spent much time thinking about the merits. I’m curious because there are some significant parallels with the group-based techniques common to service design and I’d like a better understanding of those dynamics.
The best book I’ve found on the subject is a 1997 publication by David Morgan called Focus Groups as Qualitative Research, part of a fantastic series on research methods. For me, its most thought provoking insight is the notion that focus groups can be used in conjunction with other qualitative techniques.
The author regards this as conventional wisdom and cautions against the “unwarranted assumption that focus groups must be limited to preliminary or exploratory uses in combination with other methods.” And later, “the reputation that focus groups have in some circles as a ‘quick and cheap’ technique is due to the very limited function to which they have often been relegated as preliminary explorations to set the stage for real research.”
To be honest it had never occurred to me that focus groups could be used as anything other than a stand-alone tool. I’ve seen them used in parallel with other qualitative techniques, but not in any sort of integrated fashion. Viewed in isolation the criticisms of focus groups might be compelling (though I think the author would disagree). But as a preparatory step I can see quite a bit of resonance for design researchers.
Focus Groups and Participant Observation
The principle benefit that focus groups have to offer to a project based on participant observation is a concentrated insight into participants’ thinking on a topic. This can be especially useful when the researcher is entering a field site that differs sharply from his or her prior experience.
In this case, the focus groups provide an initial exposure to the typical experiences and perspectives of those the research is about to observe. Given the well known problems of gaining access to and establishing rapport in a new field site, preliminary focus groups with participants drawn from similar locations, other than the research setting itself, can often be quite useful. [Morgan p33]
Focus Groups and Individual Interviewing
The basic idea is to use one or two exploratory focus groups to reveal the range of thoughts and experiences prior to the first individual interview. Alternatively, preliminary individual interviews can help generate focus group discussion guides by giving a feel for how people think and talk about the topics that the groups will discuss.
A different “supplementary” use for either type of interview would be to learn about differences among potential interviewees. Thus, in an individual-interview project that involved a choice among several sites or population groups, a preliminary round of focus groups would provide a basis for selecting the next set of interviews.
A final way to combine focus groups with individual interviews is to conduct one as a follow-up to the other. Following individual interviews with focus groups allows the researcher to explore issues that came up only during the analysis of the interviews. Alternately, followup individual interviews can help provide depth and detail on topics that were only broadly discussed in group interviews. [Morgan p34]
The basic argument in favor of focus groups is that they reveal aspects of experiences and perspectives that would be less accessible without group interaction. Unfortunately this interaction can cause problems of its own and much of the criticism leveled at focus groups centers on this issue.
In any event, the main advantage for designers is the opportunity to observe a large amount of interaction on a particular topic in a limited amount of time. I’m intrigued by the idea that focus groups might also provide a preliminary understanding of an otherwise foreign subject and help set the stage for more detailed research. But it’s clear that the author views this as a limited application of an otherwise robust strategy. “For many purposes, focus groups, like other qualitative methods, can be a well-chosen, self-contained means for collecting research data. … [and] when pursued in this way, focus groups demand the same attention to detail as any other means of data collection. The quality of data depends on the quality of preparation.”
He’s talking about focus groups as a rigorous tool of social science, which I gather is about as far removed from the marketing-based focus groups of scorn as actual ethnographic research is from the watered down version of “design ethnography” that designers know and love.
Throughout the book the author highlights best practices for successful focus groups. I’ve compiled a list of about a dozen practical guidelines from the book for future reference, including a set of techniques for group self-management.