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Focus groups – are they still relevant?

Focus groups – are they still relevant?

A quick glance through any of a number of different marketing magazines will leave you with an overwhelming sense that traditional research methodologies such as focus groups are no longer in demand. Terms such as ‘email marketing’, ‘search engine optimisation (SEO)’ and ‘social media marketing’ have become the norm where once focus groups and CATI methodologies were prominent.

Indeed, a quick look on ‘Google Trends’ reveals that global interest (web searches) for the term ‘Focus Groups’ has seen a gradual decline in the last 5 years.

Despite the apparent drop in popularity, a well-structured and well-moderated focus group remains one of the most effective qualitative research methodologies. So why has popularity waned?  To answer this, we need to have a look back at the history of focus groups.

The golden age of focus groups

Focus groups can be traced back to pre-WWII, however the approach was brought into popular culture by Robert K. Merton and his 1956 book “The Focussed Interview”.  In the subsequent decades focus groups gradually became an accepted research methodology – politicians began using groups to understand their constituents and to shape their policies and image, big business began to test new and innovative products in a group setting, and even academics interested in group dynamics and behaviour modification began to explore this methodology.

By the late 80s and early 90s, focus groups were being used extensively within the market research field in various ways such as:

  • advertising and campaign testing
  • understanding behaviours, and, more importantly, how to modify behaviour
  • new product testing
  • social and political policy research
  • internal staff research

Increased competition and oversupply

By this time, an increased number of people and organisations began offering focus groups, from marketing and advertising professionals, management consultants to academics and other professionals.

With such a wide range of disciplines involved, it was little wonder that an agreed set of rules/directions on which to base a focus group was elusive.  This lack of consistency began to affect the quality of insight uncovered and, very gradually, the popularity of focus groups began to decline.

Resurgence – the development of a taxonomy of skills

James Cowley, a former Managing Director of newfocus, recognised this gap and developed a ‘taxonomy of skills’ to help quantify the processes and approach required for high quality focus groups. This taxonomy pieced together research from a wide variety of disciplines including marketing, psychology, sociology and research design to develop a core framework that encompassed the broad skillset needed for an effective focus group.  The result of this was a step by step process for moderators to follow to elicit the most valuable insights from a group of participants.

The relevance of focus groups in a digital age

With this taxonomy of skills in hand, focus groups remain an effective approach for obtaining in-depth information; however, focus groups continue to evolve with the times.

Modern focus groups can integrate mobile devices, social media and online approaches to look more deeply at online customers’ perceptions/attitudes and behaviours.

At newfocus we also provide web-clinics, a process that builds on the traditional focus group and aims to understand users’ preferences and satisfaction with elements of a particular website including the look, feel, functionality and ease of navigating through the website.

This methodology provides opportunities to observe how users are currently sourcing information, the taxonomy used and the extent to which the information found meets the enquirers’ needs. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the experience, identifying gaps and opportunities for improvement and to evaluate any proposed future content. It can therefore provide the ideal platform to evaluate user needs from both a content and channel perspective.

A web-clinic typically has three main aspects (as described below) however, as with all our research approaches, this methodology is not set in stone, and can be modified to better reflect the end needs of our clients.

By expertise – heuristic analysis

Heuristic analysis is a method of website evaluation that involves an ‘expert’ examining a website against a set of simple, guiding principles or heuristics. These principles typically encompass a variety of different fields such as:

  • human factors/ergonomics
  • cognitive psychology
  • social psychology
  • website engineering

Heuristic analysis is a useful starting point for any web-based evaluation as it limits the influence of personal bias with random users, and enables the researcher to concentrate on the fundamental principles for an effective website design.

The lead researcher will go through the website a number of times to assess and evaluate the flow of the website, consistency, relatedness, colour, contrast, and readability among others.

This phase will provide a guideline as to how well a particular website operates within the realm of human perception and functioning, and will help to structure the subsequent user testing phases and help develop the research instruments.

By observation

During the clinic sessions, trained researchers will observe some respondents as they interact with a particular website. They will typically ask respondents to follow through given scenarios to assess how these users search for, find and comprehend the information. Potential problems can be noted at this stage and then discussed in the subsequent group session.

The scenarios will test typical or ideal pathways through the website and will lead to the development of a task analysis which will provide a visual representation of the steps or processes involved in completing each task.

Equally important is to check for unexpected problems, the language and search terms used and how the look and feel (or presentation) impacts on the website experience.  Any issues are then raised in the discussion groups.

By discussion

Once participants have spent time online, the experience can be discussed in detail. Drawing on the taxonomy of skills, the moderator facilitates the group of participants to explore in greater detail the participants’ online experience.

The discussion is likely to be based around the key themes of:

  • information search – mapping the behaviour around how and where participants look for information
  • channel expectations – how participants expect to be communicated with, and what types of information they expect to find online
  • current and future information needs, gaps and opportunities


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