Research Tip #1: Getting Focus


Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

Several years ago, when I was on the client-side, I was managing a set of focus groups that started in Denver in the evening and then moved to Atlanta the next day in the afternoon. We were working with a different moderator in each location. When I showed up early for the Denver groups, my internal client’s manager--the division director--pulled me aside to tell me that the next day my client and several of their peers would be laid off. And that he had glanced over the discussion guide and it wasn’t at all on target for their research needs. We reworked the guide then and there, but the moderator we had wouldn’t adjust at all and my internal client, who was now high up in the organization, was none too pleased.

Of course I tried to get ahold of the moderator for the next day, but it was too late to connect in Atlanta. And, of course, my flight in the morning ran late and the moderator, who was driving down from Nashville was running a bit late, so we weren’t able to talk until about an hour before the groups. This was well before iPhones and being connected 24/7, texting and all that.



So in the backroom I broke the news to the moderator. He explained that he didn’t have the time to rewrite the guide, so that was out. But he asked, “In plain English, what are the three things that you must learn or these groups will be a waste of money and time?” Fortunately, my client had pretty much listed those three things the night before when he was tearing up the guide. So I confidently relayed those three must-haves.


Those were the best focus groups I have ever been a part of. And that covers decades of focus groupery. What made them work so well was the focus that was forced on the discussion. It is easy for a moderator to remember three topics without referring to his notes and made for a much more interactive discussion in this case. So often discussion guides, and rightly so, try to get the flow right--how would this come up naturally. And that is a good thing to do. Having the three must-haves in mind, however, gave the moderator the freedom to follow the lead of the participants so that the flow was organic and thus it became even more revealing of insights.


Anymore, I do this exercise on any research I am leading. The key on making it work is to avoid “corporate objective speak.” Every research study I have been involved with, no matter what side of the desk I sat on, has had research objectives. These are important to have. But, in my experience, often objectives can be too laden with corporate speak. So the secret of listing your three must-haves is to make them in plain English. (Or, German or Spanish, if that is what language you are working. You know what I mean here.) So, instead of:

Determine the correlation between purchase drivers and internal mindsets


Try something like: How do attitudes align with why they buy insoles?


And that is really it. That’s the only must-do for your must-haves. (Well, and the obvious that it’s better to do this early in the planning process than an hour before the groups.)


I highly recommend doing this when you set off on a new research study. It doesn’t matter if it is a survey, focus groups, ethnography, or whatever. Focus from a short list of must-haves will help you engage with participants much more naturally and make sure that the important stuff gets the attention it deserves.