Qualitative Research: What No One Is Talking About

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October 3rd, 2018

Many customer research methods have a dogged obsession with objectivity. They go out of their way to control a variety of factors that might skew results and try to craft an abstract version of the “ideal customer.” Much like economists who create complex models that rely upon “rational” actors to always make the optimal economic decisions, customer research focuses on stripping away as much outside influence as possible to find out what customers “really” think.

Except that’s not how people actually think.

Human beings are social creatures. While there is a great deal of research on the dynamics of group psychology, most people intuitively understand that their behavior is influenced by their social environment. We’re comfortable within family and peer groups that make us feel secure and accepted. When we step outside of that comfort zone, our behavior changes, sometimes dramatically.

And that’s even before we know someone is watching us…

The Problem With Focus Groups

Traditional focus groups are put together under the misguided assumption that removing the participants from their familiar environment will produce more genuine responses. In reality, focus groups are like any other group, subject to their own unique social dynamics and pressures. When you gather data from a focus group, you’re not getting information about what a person actually thinks about something; you’re getting what they think in the context of the focus group. Even worse, their responses are often being influenced by how they believe their answers will be perceived by the group’s organizers.

If you’re trying to pull useful insights about your customers from this situation, you’re bound to be disappointed. By placing the participants in an unusual context, you’ve created a situation in which they’re more likely to overthink their answers, ask questions of themselves they would otherwise never consider, and allow the strangers around them to influence opinions.

There are a number of specific problems that arise with focus groups. While some of them can be minimized by good group design, in many cases it’s difficult to know how much of an impact they could have until the group is actually assembled. Some of these issues include:

  • Gap between opinions and behavior: Focus groups can tell you what people think, but not what they actually do. Asking their impression about a product in the abstract is different from having them interact with the product and then provide feedback. This is especially difficult when testing new or innovative product designs.
  • Group leader effect: Market researchers have known for some time that focus groups are easily hijacked by participants who can steer the discussion in strongly positive or negative directions. They’re often the first to speak or raise contrary or strong opinions. In some instances, they attempt to cooperate with the moderator, but they can also compete with them for control of the discussion. In any event, group leaders can easily skew focus group results because other participants are reacting to them as much as the moderator’s questions.
  • Introvert effect: People with introverted personalities tend to become even more introverted in unfamiliar situations. It’s hard to imagine a more uncomfortable position for an introvert than putting them in a room with complete strangers and asking them to give their opinions on something. The social dynamic of focus groups also encourages more extroverted personalities to speak more often (and usually more vocally). As extroverts dominate the conversation, introverts become even more withdrawn and passive. This ends up over representing the thoughts and opinions of the more extroverted focus group members, even though the responses of the quieter members are just as valuable to researchers.
  • Vividness effect: A phenomenon observed by cognitive psychologists, the vividness effect refers to our tendency to remember emotionally charged and extreme situations more clearly than other events. In the context of a focus group, it means that researchers are more likely to value an unusual or well-described response than a more mundane one. As an everyday example of this effect, think about how much more weight online shoppers tend to place in a savagely descriptive one-star product review than in the much greater number of blandly written four- or five-star reviews.

Human beings are social creatures

Breaking Through with Friendship Groups

Fortunately, there are different ways to approach research that can greatly diminish these problems. Friendship groups are a variation of traditional focus groups that put together three to four people who already have familial relationships with one another. They could be friends, family members, work colleagues, or neighbors. By placing the participants in a comfortable environment with people they know and trust, they’re more likely to speak freely and genuinely. And since they already have a sense of how the other participants think, they are more likely to hold each other accountable and call out answers that seem less than sincere.

While putting people who know each other well into a focus group environment may seem counterintuitive, it actually provides a more authentic look at how people actually behave when they interact with a brand or product. Rather than creating a sterile and unnatural situation, friendship groups allow people to express their thoughts and opinions in a collaborative space that creates the context in which they actually express them.

Think about it this way: how do people usually express their feelings about a product or service? They don’t share a detailed list with complete strangers, which is essentially the context created by a focus group. Rather, they talk to their friends about things they like or don’t like. Some of these comments might not be well thought out or even rational, but that doesn’t make them any less authentic or valid. These are the insights researchers desperately want to get at, and they’re exactly the kind of responses that focus groups have difficulty eliciting.

Since the participants know each other well, they’re more likely to share personal information they might not willingly divulge to strangers. Friends have a way of poking and prodding people to encourage honest sharing that doesn’t allow ideas or opinions to go unspoken. And the relaxed atmosphere allows discussions to develop naturally, leading to insights researchers might never expect or think to ask about.

If you’re frustrated with focus groups that produce the same predictable results, experimenting with friendship groups is both a cost-effective and innovative methodology that can reframe almost any field of customer experience research. By putting participants in a situation where they already have a rapport with each other and feel relaxed enough speak freely, you can get much closer to understanding how they actually think and behave in their everyday lives.

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