If this is you it’s a dangerous strategy

Fingers in ears

I had a conversation recently with someone who didn’t really understand the concept of qualitative research and said ‘ok, tell me what you can do for me with this research you do then’.  I replied that first of all I would consult closely with them to understand their business issue or challenge, and then work out the best way to go about addressing it using first-hand feedback from their customers so they were fully informed and able to make considered and constructive decisions.

Somewhat to my surprise this prompted a response that was somewhere between aggressive and dismissive, stating that research would not be able to help any business problem (should they have one) because they knew everything there was to know about their customer attitudes based on anecdotal feedback and 5-line customer satisfaction questionnaires, plus they couldn’t see how spending money on telling them what they already knew could be in the least bit worthwhile.

I demurred and congratulated them on their confidence, but this kind of attitude towards customer understanding and insight can be worrying.  All too often good, in-depth consumer research can be seen as a cost rather than an investment, with marketing departments preferring to make assumptions about their target audience without really knowing that they’re right.

If this is you it’s a dangerous strategy.  People rarely see us the way we see ourselves, and if you’re not sure about a direction for your marketing campaign, or have a sense that the competition is stealing a bit of a march, there’s no substitute for just going out and asking the punters what’s going on from their point of view.

You might not like what you hear, but it’s amazing how a small amount of good quality insight can refresh the perspective of those who’ve got to the cloth ears stage by being too close to their product, and it’s very unusual that a bit of objective external input in the form of a few focus groups doesn’t shake up the thinking a bit and tweak the direction along tighter lines,

The temptation may be to do it as cheaply as possible and run a freebie on SurveyMonkey, but the real value is going to come from first-hand feedback via qualitative research and even a small amount of spend here can make a significant difference to the effectiveness of a marketing campaign or development strategy (whatever the budget).

The exciting thing about qualitative research is that it doesn’t just tell you what people think, but why they think it and therefore how this might affect their behaviour. A good researcher should guide you to that nugget of understanding, and it’s this information that enables a customer message to develop into something that is really going to hit the mark.

How many is the ‘right’ number for a focus group?


How many in a group image

There seems to be some kind of time-honoured expectation or assumption that 8 respondents is the ‘standard’ number required to make up a focus group.  I wondered how and when this was established and after some asking around others in the industry, it seems that the magic number 8 has some foundation in logic, although there are others who claim it was decided as a purely arbitrary number that just somehow stuck.

One definition suggests that 8 is the largest number of people in a group which would allow it to function naturally as a single discussion without breaking into smaller groups, and allows the moderator to adopt a passive style and let the group run itself. Another suggestion is that the format, and the number 8, emanate from psychoanalytical practice (although no detail was available on this).

The accepted view among researchers tends to be that the optimum size of groups should be determined by the nature of the objectives, the people you are talking to and perhaps also the way in which the moderator is comfortable working. So some research groups may be best conducted with 8+ people making use of workshop-type techniques with breakout and regrouping sessions; others will be suited to smaller groups of 4-6 people where everyone can converse easily and inclusively.

The consensus however seems to settle at 6-7 as the optimum size for a focus group, allowing the best balance of breadth and depth of conversation. 8 thus perhaps refers to the optimum number of respondents to recruit, on the basis that there may be one or two no-shows resulting in a group of 6-7 as a norm.

Personally I have increasingly found that even smaller groups of 4-5 yield as much as anything larger, giving as they do the opportunity to explore issues in real depth without the need to ensure that everyone – including the quiet one in the corner – has had the chance to respond to any particular question. Obviously the sample size is decreased but I don’t ever feel the quality of the responses is decreased or the overall outcome affected, and clients should not be afraid to consider a less-than-8-per-group approach.

When Group Discussions became Focus Groups

Focus  Group  Discussion

‘Focus group’ has always been the American term for what was originally known as a group discussion in the UK, and as research – like everything – has become more international there has been an inevitable merging of terminology and also methodology (American groups tending to take a more face value/systematic line than the humanistic/psychological approach used in Europe).

More specifically however, the renaming of group discussions can probably be attributed to the Blair years at the turn of the 21st century. Prior to this, group discussions in the UK were used to talk to consumers and businesses about their attitudes and behaviours in relation to brands and products, and had no significant role in the political arena.

American political researchers meanwhile were recognising the value of using group sessions to talk and listen to ordinary members of the public about their political views (rather than just vociferous political activists), and these sessions were duly known as focus groups.

When the idea of using groups to talk to the general public about politics was subsequently taken up by researchers in the UK, the name focus groups was introduced and the term gradually became recognised amongst the general research community.

By the time Blair came along, the wider media were starting to pay attention to the tactics used by political party researchers. This effectively started the spread of the term focus groups into the public domain, and today nearly everybody in the UK says ‘focus groups’ rather than ‘group discussions’.

One of the legacies of this development has arguably not favoured the research industry, thanks to somewhat pejorative journalism at the time implying that Blair governed ‘by doing what the focus groups told him’. This tended to suggest that focus groups were purely about eliciting views rather than sensitively interpreting and analysing feedback, undermining the skill and value of properly run qualitative research.

In turn this has made it easier for managers and others to do their own ‘focus groups’, unaware that they are not really doing qualitative research at all and at worst, generating poor quality and misleading information because they lack the necessary research skills.

(This is perhaps reflected by Diageo’s launch of its 2012 Consumer Planning Team manifesto ‘Say No to Focus Groups’, when what it really meant was ‘say no to doing qualitative research badly for the wrong reasons’.)

Even today, it is not uncommon for qualitative researchers to feel a bit uncomfortable about saying they ‘do focus groups’, given the slightly lightweight connotations now attributed to one of the key tools of our trade which were not characteristic in the days of ‘group discussions’.

The change in terminology may also have gathered momentum during the early 90s through the actions of management consultancies. At that time a lot of established UK firms were undergoing all manner of corporate restructuring (mergers and acquisitions, stock market launches etc) and management consultancies took the opportunity to sell qualitative research using the label of focus groups. This had the effect of making it seem as if a ‘new’ technique had been introduced, thus giving the term corporate as well as political exposure.

With thanks to ICG members for their contributions to this blog.

Charge for Broadband by speed

slow broadband speed snip

We have a shocking internet service here and are likely to continue to do so. ‘Superfast’ is on its way way are told, but it’s not coming here any time soon (I’ve checked, frequently) and we struggle along with a pathetic service where we are lucky to ever get speeds of more than 1 Mbps dowload and 0.5 upload.

As speeds elsewhere get faster, websites get bigger which means that it becomes harder and harder for us to download anything within a realistic time period. seriously compromising our daily lives in every respect. I do a lot of focus group interviewing via web conference and have had to become the master of improvisation as I prompt relevant chat while waiting for slides to load – with absolutely no idea how long it’s going to take before this happens and I can move the conversation on to where I need to and keep my respondents engaged.

We manage – somehow – but the real issue of concern is that we pay exactly the same rate for our broadband as others who are getting theirs much, much faster. There is no acknowledgement or compensation for the shockingly poor service received, and it’s hard to think of any other product or service where customers are so unfairly and indiscriminately charged.

There is no solution at present to improving the speeds, because despite its squeaks and squirms BT is absolutely not doing ‘all it can’ to bring high speed broadband to the whole of the UK. However there is a fairer way to deal with the problem, which is for the Government to step in and oblige service providers to structure their rates based on the speed of broadband delivered, so that the product cost is much more representative of what you are actually buying.

So our rate of up to 1 Mpbs is charged at x, and those lucky enough to be getting more than this are charged pro rata. Obviously rates for the majority (who recieve 1 Mpbs or more) can’t go up, so ours needs to come down – significantly – and at least we won’t feel so burdened by the insult to injury of being penalised and exploited every single day of our lives.

Even when we are all ‘superfast’ there must be controls in place to ensure that those who get on to ‘super-superfast’ are charged accordingly, and the rest of us unfortunates aren’t left short-changed once again.

I’m off to make a cup of tea (and probably fit in around of golf as well) while this post uploads.

Retro tech for baby boomers

Confused elderly man with remote control

Our final child is about to to go to uni, leaving us in a lifestyle abyss.   A clear sign of middle-age dependency is the alarming inability to achieve what used to be everyday simple tasks – set the video, plug a postcode into the satnav, tune the radio, even turn on the telly.  (Recently I had to send a panic all-family whatsapp to find out why I was faced with a blank grey screen with little indecipherable boxes bottom left, solved by my son guiding me from Australia to press the right button and restore us to the Sunday calm of Countryfile.)

As the baby boomer generation we have been through the pain of evolution from analogue to digital, dials to buttons, pen and paper to typing and screens, and by and large have managed pretty well.  However all the new stuff that technology now throws at us is the start of a losing battle because it’s simply not in our DNA to work out how it works, and if we don’t get it now we are simply never going to.

But the geeks and designers just don’t get this.  Intent on progress and the fascination of what is possible, they completely overlook the fact that there is a massive and growing population of other people (50+) who don’t want to buy or use what excites a 20-something tecchy, and do want something they can understand and use without having to resort to huffing offspring or expensive IT gurus to help with a basic but apparently unsolvable problem.

Life was sweet when there was just one remote rather than 3 to learn your way around, a sensible range of options that were relevant to what you might need rather than hundreds that you don’t, words and numbers rather than icons requiring guesswork and glasses and – yes! BIG WRITING!

What the geeks & designers need to wake up to is that the person who invents retro-tech is going to make a fortune. New ideas are tested in usability labs, but by definition laboratory testing has limitations and does not represent a real-life environment where there are no prompts or time limits on tasks.

As a researcher, I would love to get the gs&ds involved in some good in-depth ethnographic research, where they could lurk in someone’s home and actually observe just how challenging it is to understand and cope with all the symbols, beeps and buttons when it’s not an instinctive or intuitive process.   Then they might ask themselves, how would my granny cope with this? and perhaps come up with a few practical modifications to the most basic things that cause frustration on a daily basis.

Some might say tough, work it out and live with it, but I believe there is a massive opportunity for the development of baby-boomer-tech, targeted at those who are open to new things but need more in the way of the kind of usability they are used to.

That, in a nutshell, would be real progress, ie simplifying what has become way overly complicated just because it can.  And we would all rush out and buy buy buy and never have to panic again that when the telly goes blank we won’t know what to press, because it will all be easy and obvious and Countryfile will be safely there on Sunday just has it always has been.

Clare Wade, newly-empty-nested Research Consultant.