How To Better Use Focus Groups for Innovation

Key Insights:

  • Less structure, more freeform
  • Stop over-planning
  • Introduce forms of play
  • Be careful with video/audio recording
  • Do you actually want insights?

The researchers and the marketing team spend untold hours agonising over the structure of the focus group research. Back and forths with documents, planning for this city or that. Travel schedules, finding a moderator or facilitator. What assumptions need to be tested? How to incentivise people to come and to be engaged.

Most of the time, focus groups are designed entirely wrong and participants get bored quickly. The sugar rush of the cookies fades, the caffeine wears off. Side-long glances towards the mirrored observation window are silent pleas for it all to just end.

What we’ve come to find is that today, most focus groups are designed not to gather truly insightful feedback, but rather to validate the assumptions of the marketing team, of the brand. They’re designed for the way the company works, not the way humans work. Or behave.

At their worst, focus groups are designed to tell a marketing team what they already know. True change is uncomfortable.

Yet innovation means change. Innovation is not a process, it is an outcome. And that outcome necessarily means doing something different from what has been done before, but because whatever is being done now, for some reason, isn’t working.

Focus groups can be valuable. When it comes to using focus groups as part of the research process however, doing them the way they’re done today, reductionist and formulaic, does the opposite of delivering insights.

The other key factor is that whatever innovation area you’re working on, it will involve humans. Fixing a supply chain software or system issue that is automated is not an innovation. It’s an operational improvement.

Too often today, there’s an attempt to make focus groups quantitative. By their very nature, they are qualitative. Introducing ranking systems is machine thinking, not human thinking. Here’s an example of what not to do.

Humans, by our very nature, do weird things. Focus groups for innovation research work should be unstructured, open and borrow from the essence of ethnographic research; being there. Being open. Being human. With humans.

In this case, a focus group can be better designed with more openness and a willingness to go with the flow of the group. Usually, a facilitator sits there taking copious notes, maybe it’s being video/audio recorded as well. Then there’s the big two-way mirror.

Taking obvious notes, reading from a script of questions, keeping the group on a structured path, are not very conducive to creating a creative flow. No matter how diplomatic and calming the facilitator.

Instead, have some key questions and desired outcomes planned out ahead of time and memorised. Brief the focus group on the purpose of being there. Let it flow.

Yes, keep notes, but as unobtrusively as possible. Have creative tools on-hand for the group; pens, pencils, paper, white boards, big paper pad. People express themselves in different ways, so make available the tools of expression.

It is amazing just how fast a two-hour focus group will go. And what you’ll uncover.

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