My first focus group

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After a short walk from Thinktank’s office in Somerset House I arrive in Covent Garden for my first-ever focus group, says Joseph Ezekiel. I’ve been told I will be observing through a one-way mirror and envisage a cramped space looking into an interview room. But I’m pleasantly surprised. Everything is far swankier than I’d expected. They serve food, even alcohol!

The clients are already there. The participants arrive. The room is soundproofed and every word from the other side of the large mirror is audible.

I’d been warned qualitative research was the more eccentric, unpredictable companion to its quantitative counterpart and that encountering interesting behaviour was the norm. Sure enough, a quick icebreaker uncovers some colour. One participant casually discloses that he sells fish for a living and that he also spent the week on a friend’s private island.

The moderator is adept at including everyone in discussions and at probing more deeply into points raised. She makes sure there’s an authentic, but also focused, dialogue going on. This ‘live’ form of research seems to be about capturing a mood and an appetite for a product through genuine conversation and interaction.

The groups are freethinking and effusive. Sometimes participants actively deride product ideas. One jibes that the marketing team ‘don’t know what they’re doing’, unaware that they are sitting a few metres away. Another suggests that one of the potential straplines would be a more accurate description for a long-drop toilet. These comments are met with a mixture of disbelief and laughter from the client side of the glass. I suppose they are used to this and know how to take customer feedback on the chin — though not too literally!

Observing participants through a one-way mirror initially feels deceitful. I’m slightly uncomfortable with it, as though I’m eavesdropping or spying on unsuspecting subjects. But then I find I’m agreeing or disagreeing with what they say, and I feel almost part of the conversation. The group is sometimes incredibly funny and entertaining. The time zips by.

The following week I attended the client debrief — and was impressed how my new colleagues had managed to synthesise what the consumers had told them into a presentation that encouraged a lively and thoughtful discussion. The clients were left with some definite action plans to develop new products.

So, is qual research eccentric and unpredictable? Most certainly. But it’s also alive, dynamic and exciting! Plus it’s amazing that a researcher can gain a deep understanding of consumer relationships to brands and products with just a handful of carefully selected participants.

Joseph Ezekiel is a graduate intern at Thinktank International Research