Problems with Focus groups

Skilled moderators are crucial to the success of focus groups. It is generally believed that a good moderator should be well trained in psychology or sociology, should have had experience with the product of interest and must have an intuitive skill for grasping the important points developed in the discussion. As the moderator conducts the interview, analyses the results, draws conclusions, and recommends action, it is clear that the results from this type of exploratory research depend on the skill and imagination of this individual. This in one type of weakness in this research. A weakness that leads to skepticism on the part of many. The same results may not be obtained by other researchers at other times. If focus groups are treated as exploratory research, and the hypotheses developed are then tested with conclusive quantitative research, there is a problem. But much focus group research is not followed by conclusive research, probably because of the cost. Critics of focus groups argue that the results obtained are little more than creative ideas of the researcher and should not be considered research.

In early focus group research the sessions were held in private homes, which provided a relaxed atmosphere conducive to informal discussion of the bull session variety. As the value of these sessions for stimulating advertising and marketing, creative people became recognized, it became necessary to hold the sessions in more formal settings with one way mirrors and audio-visual recording facilities. As a result, there is a tendency to use formal conference rooms with the participants sitting around a large table. Most researchers would prefer a room made as casual and informal as possible.

Depth interviews or one-on-ones were a predecessor of focus groups and now are staging a comeback. They are used for many of the same purposes and are subject to the same criticism of subjectivity. There are two main differences: Focus groups are thought to clarify attitudes and feelings through the give-and-take of the group discussion, and they are thought to be cheaper because information is obtained from several respondents at one time.

But focus groups have problems that even the best moderators cannot entirely eliminate. Dominant personalities may take over groups and lead the discussion in their own ways. This may result in the establishment of a group feeling that keeps less aggressive individuals with other views from expressing them. Other participants may tend to stray off the topic, making it difficult to cover all the points of interest in the time available – usually a maximum of two per group.

Group interviewing violates most of the accepted canons of survey research. Samples are invariably small and never selected by probability methods. Questions are not asked the same way each time. Responses are not independent. Some respondents inflict their opinion on others; some contribute little or nothing at all. Results are difficult or impossible to quantify and are not grist for the statistical mill. Conclusions depend on the analysts’ interpretive skill. The investigator can easily influence the results.

Why is that methodology with so many limitations is so popular? The answer is that focus groups can be conducted quickly and cheaply and almost always result in some new ideas.