A focus group moderator’s guide will often include group exercises or facilitation techniques as alternative approaches to direct questioning. While many of these alternative tactics are not unique to the group discussion method, and are also used in in-depth interview research, they have become a popular device in focus groups, esp., in the marketing research field. These alternative approaches can be broadly categorized as either enabling or projective techniques, the difference being whether the moderator’s intent is to simply modify a direct question to make it easier for group participants to express their opinions (enabling techniques) or delve into participants’ less conscious, less rational, less socially-acceptable feelings by way of indirect exercises (projective techniques). Examples of enabling techniques are: sentence completion – e.g., “When I think of my favorite foods, I think of _____.” or “The best thing about the new city transit system is _____.”; word association – e.g., asking prospective college students, “What is the first word you think of when I say, ‘first day of college’?” or asking hospital administrators, “When I say ‘patient care’, what is the first word or words that come to mind?”; and storytelling – e.g., “Tell me a story about the last time you made something for dinner using leftovers.”
Projective techniques serve to depersonalize the discussion by moving away from direct questions specific to the research topic and instead ask participants to project their feelings by imagining the thoughts of others, role playing, and describing visual stimuli (such as images). Completing thought bubbles on a cartoon drawing depicting genderless characters, and selecting from a stack of photographs the images that best represent how participants feel about a topic are just two examples of projective techniques.
The use of projective techniques is especially rampant among marketing researchers who increasingly (with the growing capabilities of online research) devise new variations of projective exercises. However, from a quality-design perspective, the use of projective techniques can be problematic and begs the question of whether or how much projective techniques bring added value to the group discussion. While enabling techniques are extensions of direct questioning that fall within the researcher’s natural skill set, the indirect method of projective exercises drifts into the little-known realm, among many social science researchers, of clinical psychology. Regardless of whether focus group participants are given the opportunity to explain their own interpretation of their thought bubble, drawing, or picture sort – or whether the interpretation is left for the researcher – the inherent subjectivity of the meanings that are ultimately associated with participants’ output threatens the validity of these techniques.
The credibility of qualitative research data partially rests on knowing what is being measured, yet the short duration of a focus group session – and the moderator’s limited depth of knowledge about the participants – may make true interpretations of the data (and linkages back to the research objectives) from projective techniques a challenge. What, for example, has the researcher measured from a collage exercise resulting in a collection of seemingly unrelated images from each of 10 group participants? The moderator can investigate each participant’s interpretation of their “artwork” but the reality is that the focus group moderator does not have the capability of knowing whether the collage exercise tapped into an unconscious realization important to the research objectives, or knowing if the exercise measured aspects of the participant related to (for example) motivations, cultural background, or social awareness.
To maximize the credibility of focus group data stemming from the use of enabling and projective techniques, researchers must carefully select which techniques to use based on their ability to interpret the results in conjunction with the in-session time the moderator will be able to give to these exercises. For instance, the researcher might opt for a smaller discussion format, such as dyads and triads, in order to accommodate the necessary time to complete a projective technique, such as a picture sort, including a thorough examination of each participant’s reasons for the photographs he or she selected as well as those that were rejected. The careful use of these techniques will not only enhance data credibility but also increase the overall quality of the research by allowing the researcher to perform necessary verification procedures (such as triangulation) in the analysis phase.