It has long been suggested among the less-initiated that attending a focus group is not unlike a theatre-going experience. While I am not sure where this notion came from, some have argued that it is the one-way mirror that has been instrumental in transforming facility-based qualitative research (focus groups & IDIs) from a real-world laboratory research method to a production complete with audience and staging. Frank Kennedy – a long-time practitioner and teacher of qualitative research who died in 2006 – planted his tongue firmly in his cheek to describe the impact the one-way mirror has had on recruiters and facility owners. He quips –
“Recruiters and facility owners woke up to the fact that they were theater owners and casting agents, that respondents must be entertaining, and that like good troupers, they could be taught to play different parts – product users one day, product non-users the next. They started to design theaters complete with bars, Klieg lights, built-in mikes and cameras, even two-tiered viewing rooms just like the balconies and loges of the old traditional theaters. They stopped asking [their clients] dumb questions like ‘How was the recruiting?’ and started to think like theater people: ‘How did you like the performance? Was there enough Jack Daniels? I hope you were pleased with Mary Jayne, she’s always been popular here.’”
And as for moderators/interviewers….
“They learned that what’s good research is often bad theater: endless, boring probing; the same questions group after group; no amusing put-downs, no clever projectives; deadbeat respondents who never talked up. It didn’t take long for them to insist on articulate interesting actors, and to forget this nonsense about representative samples.”
A wild, misguided premise you say? I’m not so sure. You don’t have to look far to find qualitative facilities who have designed elaborate, attractive promotional material emphasizing location, comfort (over-the-top amenities), and terrific food (some with their own chefs!); while containing little or (gasp) nothing on recruiting, the research process, their quality measures, or ‘success rate’.
One can also argue that moderators and to a lesser extent interviewers have ‘played’ to the audience with “toolboxes” brimming with projective techniques that are fun for the participants and wake-inducing for the viewers in the back room. Are these techniques hatched in the name of good research design? Do these techniques provide the necessary fodder for sound analytics? Can we rely on these techniques to lead us to actionable results? The answer is maybe. Yes if the focus is on design and analysis, no if the focus is on the one-way mirror.
The one-way mirror, of course, is a scapegoat. The degree to which qualitative research (esp., focus groups) have become a source of entertainment is really a function of the researchers and research end-users. Both providers and users alike need to take ownership of the research process. We all need to ask ourselves and each other, “Is it self-serving theatrics or is it good research?”
Kennedy, F. 1991 or 1990. “The Moderator of the Year.” QRCA newsletter.