The act of design insists on discovery and, in turn, demands of us a capacity to recognise the value of the information we uncover. By extension, designers must, at some point, ask if a given territory has been explored before and, if so, by whom and by what means? Through exploration we discover what is already known, who knows it, how it is known and eventually, we arrive in the unknown territory that we seek. There be dragons! Ed.
The brief development process of any design project is critical, not only as a primary source of inspiration, but also to ensure, as much as possible, that the outcome is fit for the purpose intended by the client. Figuring out the actual nature of that purpose is a challenge for both designer and client. The process begins with information gathering—an aspect of design education that is sadly, in most cases, missing or very limited. In this series of short articles, Natalie Herd from Empirica Research will critically evaluate traditional research methods and the suite of new methods that are now available to us, in this post-digital age. This first article is on the pros and cons of using Focus Groups to understand complex organizational structures and their needs. Ed.
The traditional approach to conducting research with a group of individuals—whether they are employees in an organization, patrons of a specific venue, or prospective consumer of a particular product—is to conduct focus group sessions or meetings and simply ask people what they think. Focus groups are great…for some projects; however, they are just one part of the research process and there are now more insightful (and often more cost effective), alternative research methodologies available to us. The aim of this series is to shed some light on the drawbacks of the traditional research methodologies, and to offer some alternative means to gaining insights into the consumer.
Often the language we use to describe something is not the same as the language that our intended audience uses. The primary purpose of a focus group is, therefore, to hear what that audience thinks about a product or idea, in their own words. In addition, focus groups allow us to:
- Monitor non-verbal feedback and body language
- Gather initial ideas or feedback to designs (just getting your audience to talk about how they use a space or their reactions to a new space idea can be useful)
- Listen to how the group responds to different ideas and argues their own points, providing potential insight into what features they deem most important.
1. Cost. Gathering feedback from consumers in the form of focus groups or meetings is typically a costly exercise. Firstly, focus groups take up a lot of time (typically about two hours each), and given that there are usually only 8-10 people in each group, this time can begin to add up. Secondly, there is the cost of each individual participant to consider; they either need to be reimbursed for their time or their employer needs to endure lost productivity for their participation. Lastly, there are the costs of the researchers conducting the focus groups and facilities to also cover.
2. Size. The most obvious way to prevent research cost blowing out is to conduct only a limited number of focus groups – perhaps with the people you expect to contribute the most valuable insights. By doing this, however, you run the risk of obtaining insights that are not representative of the broader group of stakeholders. For example, conducting limited focus group sessions, with a small subset of employees within a large organization, is likely to provide insights that do not necessarily reflect the views of employees more generally. It’s a bit like trying to predict the outcome of an election by only asking 20 people on the street how they intend to vote – the responses gathered would be very poor predictors of the election result.
3. Capability. An additional limitation of focus groups is that they typically force participants to engage with, and think about, an idea or proposal well beyond how they would view or interact with it in a “real-world” setting. Asking people how they would interact in a particular space, for example, may produce very different findings to an observational study in which people’s actual behaviour is monitored. It is also a common misperception that people have accurate insight into their own behaviours and motivations. For example, Empirica Research recently conducted research for Hassell on what attributes prospective employees most value in a job. Instead of simply asking a group of people what their job attribute preferences are—to which we would have expected an overwhelming of response of “money”—we used a methodology called conjoint analysis (a method we describe in more detail in our next article) in which people were asked in an online survey to make a series of choices between different hypothetical jobs on offer. This method mimics the real-world situation in which people are required to make a series of trade-off when choosing between jobs that are not perfect and have different pros and cons. By tapping into the subconscious trade-offs that people were making in their choices, we were able to show that a large proportion of people are willing to accept a job with a lower than current salary if the workplace has appealing facilities, good technology is provided, and the workplace culture is appealing.
4. Bias. When conducting research it is also important to be aware of people’s impression management, even for seemingly inconsequential topics of discussion. In focus groups, discussions can be influenced by people’s social desirability biases – it’s easier and less embarrassing to just agree with the majority or the most vocal with the group. Furthermore, certain types of people will feel right at home in a focus groups setting, whereas others will feel inhibited and uncomfortable giving their honest opinions, meaning that it is easy for the extroverts to be overrepresented in the feedback gathered.
So, when should focus groups be used and when should alternative methodologies be considered instead? During the preliminary or exploratory stage of research, focus groups (and in-depth interviews) can provide clients with rich insights into previously overlooked issues and novel approaches. When financial resources are available, we recommend conducting focus groups with the target audience and/or in-depth interviews with experts to inform subsequent stages of the research. For example, the feedback gathered during focus groups can then be used to determine what types of questions should be included in an online survey with the wider target population. That being said though, Empirica Research has conducted plenty of informative research using just online surveys, for clients who do not have the financial resources to also conduct focus groups.
Focus groups can also be vital for gaining insights from hard-to-reach or very specific target audiences (e.g., high level executives), which cannot be accessed through online research panels or through observational studies. However, when the target consumer is easily accessible, such as employees in a workplace or a particular demographic in the population, alternative methodologies are likely to be just as, if not more effective (and less costly) for gaining behavioural and attitudinal insights than simply asking people what they think in a focus group setting. Some example research methodologies are:
- Online surveys with participants recruited from research panels or from client databases;
- A/B testing (i.e., an experiment to determine what the likely consequences will be of taking different approaches);
- Conjoint analysis;
- Observational studies;
- Intercept surveys;
- GPS tracking studies; and
- Location-based mobile phone surveys.
What is an Intercept Survey you ask? In this series, we will be discussing all of the above methodologies in more detail, so please stay tuned to find out.
Suggestions for further reading (Ed):
- Amadeo, D., Golledge, R.G. and Stimson, R.J. (2009) Person, Environment, Behaviour Research: Investigating Activities and Experiences in Spaces and Environments. The Guildford Press, New York. p.86
- Kirby S.L. Greaves L. Reid C. (2006) Experience Research Social Change: Methods beyond the mainstream. Canada: Broadview Press.
- Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, New York: Routledge
- Schon, D. (1995) The Reflective Practitioner (3rd Ed) Surrey, UK: Arena Ashgate Publishing Limited.
- Swann, C. (2002) Action Research and the Practice of Design. Design Issues: Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2002 (MIT), p49-61