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Posted on May 1st, 2012 by
In my first post on focus groups, I discussed how recruiting, group size and the number of groups were critical to successful Focus group research. In this section I’m going to discuss how having participants do pre-work before the actual session can dramatically improve the quality of your data.
The question and answer approach common in Focus Groups favors extroverts and those who think fast on their feet. Introverts and those who take a little more time to form their thoughts, can be hesitant to answer for fear of sounding uninformed. They either withdraw or simply agree with the ongoing discussion. With this dynamic in place, it becomes difficult to collect accurate data. It’s for this reason that so many researchers are leery of the Focus Group methodology. While the dynamic can’t be completed eliminated, there are two techniques I use to minimize it. The first, and easiest, is homework.
To level the playing field between those who think fast on their feet and those who need a little more time to think through things, give participants time to do individual work. It gives everyone the opportunity to think more deeply about the topic and come into the session with something they can talk about. It moves participants past ad-hoc comments to more insightful feedback. Another advantage of homework is it allows you to refer back to it during the focus group session. This keeps people grounded in their original thoughts and opinions and helps them relate the group discussion to their experience. I’ll talk more about how to use homework in the session in my next blog post about session techniques.
Homework also provides and easy way to collect a large number of individual data points. The group dynamics of a focus group mean you can’t treat six focus groups of five people like 30 individuals. You don’t have 30 individual opinions. If those same 30 people do homework before the focus groups, you have a true sample of 30. It’s an easy way to add impact and validity to your research. Although individual work can be done during the actual focus group session (and sometimes should be), it’s important to make the best use of the time you have with all the participants in the room. Doing the work before the session gives people time to think about the topic in their own environment, while maximizing the time available for group discussion.
What constitutes homework will vary widely depending on the goal of the research and the importance of the individual work. In the extreme, I’ve asked participants to spend several hours researching a product they wanted to buy that required them to bring in materials such as print ads or web pages that they used as part of the research process. In other cases, I’ve had people review a web site and answer 3-4 questions. The first exercise took people several hours, the second 15 minutes. Both served their purpose. It’s important to note in the first case, participants were given an electronic device worth between $100-$200 depending on the quality of their homework in addition to being paid for the focus group. For the latter, participants weren’t paid extra, it was required for participation.
I always require participants to bring their homework to the session. Just like homework in school, some people will do their homework and others will not. Although it may sound harsh, I often have the recruiter tell participants that they won’t be paid if they don’t bring their homework. For the purchase research homework I mentioned earlier, it was absolutely critical that participants completed it. In those cases, I did send participants home. Without it, they weren’t going to be able contribute to the group. For 15 minute homework, I treat it more on a case by case basis. Some people will have done it but forgotten it, others will have a good excuse. If those people seem sincere and have some knowledge of the topic at hand, I will allow them to participate. If the participant simply forgot about it and doesn’t seem particularly concerned, I will turn them away. I’ve learned people who don’t take homework seriously tend not to take the session seriously either. Keep in mind people are generally well paid for their time. You and your team have likely invested a great deal of effort into this process. If the participant isn’t willing to hold up their end of the deal, then there is no reason to feel bad about not paying them. In these cases, it is especially important to treat the participant with respect. You never want to let a person leave angry or upset. It can ruin your chance of ever getting that participant again, or worse, increase the chance the person will say bad things about you or your company. If I am going to send them home, I take these people aside, remind them that homework was a requirement for the session and explain that I can’t do my job effectively if participants don’t come prepared. I apologize for inconveniencing them and send them on their way. The vast majority of people are very understanding. For those that aren’t, and you will get them, I’ll discuss how to handle that in a separate blog post.
So how do you get people to do the homework? The most obvious way is to pay them extra. The problem with payment alone is it makes the exercise look optional and some people won’t do it. Instead, still require the homework, but offer and extra 15-20% over what they are being paid if they do a good job on the homework. This often is enough to get people to put some time into the homework, giving you higher quality responses. When you are paying extra incentive, you can make the homework assignments slightly longer, but as a guideline, stay under 30 minutes. One approach that doesn’t cost extra money is to make the exercise about the participant. Let’s face it, we all like to talk about ourselves. I am constantly amazed at the level of thought and effort people will put into something when it reflects something about them. Maybe you want to understand how people would react to a new mobile email app. Instead of asking them to comment on the interfere, ask them to document a “day in their life” and how email fits into it. Have them start when they wake up, documenting their email use throughout the day until they go to bed. You will often get a rich picture of someone waking up late, checking email while eating breakfast or trying to get the kids out the door, reading it on the bus while being jostled around, etc.
Another similar approach is to make the exercise fun. Don’t make it feel like homework. Sticking with the email example, ask them to tell a story about a recent, terrible email experience. Sending a critical email with errors. Maybe sometime when catching an email on the road saved them. Have them take a picture of their inbox. How many do they have unread? How do they manage it? Most everyone has at least one good email war story. Yet, telling a good story can be difficult and time consuming. One approach I’ve found particularly effective is asking people to make or draw something. Have them cut out pictures and make a collage of what they think of when someone says “email” or “mobile phone”. Maybe just take pictures with their phone of their surroundings when they do email. I’ll admit when I first heard my co-workers talk about collages, I was pretty skeptical. Really? Grown adults doing collages? Not everyone goes in big on collages, but as you can see from the image at the start of the article, people will actually put considerable time and effort into such an exercise. Hopefully this explains some the benefits of focus group homework and provides some ideas for creating effective homework.
Next time, In-session techniques to help produce great results