Seeking Interaction in the Focus Group Method

There is an article that ran in Research Design Review back in 2013 having to do with the interactions that ensue in focus group discussions. Specifically, this article addresses the idea that participants’ interactions have a significant impact on the outcomes of focus group discussions and yet this “facet of the focus group method…is largely ignored in the analysis and reporting of group research.” This article goes on to give an example of a way to think about the interaction effect in the focus group method.

Missing from this article is the question of whether – or the extent to which – interactions even exist in the discussions being analyzed. It seems self-evident that a “discussion” would involve two or more people exchanging ideas and thoughts – that is, an interaction. And yet, one of the most difficult skills to teach in focus group training is how to ignite an interactive environment where participants engage with the moderator as well as with each other. Moderators-in-training are coached on various skills and techniques to spur thoughtful discourse in face-to-face* focus groups and how to create an “engaged discussion environment,” but there remains a certain reticence among trainees to exercise these newly learned tactics.

Instead, many moderators gravitate to an approach best described as a series of one-on-one interviews.  The moderator asks a question and then goes around the table asking for a response from each individual. As each group participant completes a response, the moderator simply resets their brain and moves on to the next person. In the end, the moderator has fulfilled the job of hearing from each participant but has actually learned very little.

The purpose of a focus group discussion is to bring together similar (in some cases, divergent) types of people (in terms of demographics, psychographics, product/service use, etc.) and learn about each of them related to the subject matter but also about their collective attitudes and opinions that open the door to new discoveries. It is this interactive journey that the moderator hopes to achieve in a focus group discussion, a journey that takes the moderator to remote and otherwise hidden points of discovery that are only accessible by the exchange and engagement of the participants.

The question has been raised by moderators-in-training if the techniques utilized to stimulate interaction don’t in fact serve to slant the discussion, introducing unwanted bias in the outcomes. For instance, if the moderator attempts to fuel an interactive discussion by asking participants to comment on what others have said – “So John, what do you think about David’s idea to reduce the price of prescription drugs?” – does this actually push participants into opinions they may not have had otherwise?

Yes, maybe so. But maybe not. Either way, the moderator is learning how ideas and attitudes percolate among people in the target population segment and, importantly, how their ideas and attitudes may or may not shift over the course of the discussion as a direct result of the interactive environment. This is important learning. This is learning that does not happen in an in-depth interview. This is the journey that the moderator is seeking and is nurturing throughout the discussion. In the end, it is the reason we conduct focus group discussions in the first place.

* The skills and techniques required of online discussions are unique from the face-to-face mode.

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