Useful approaches to moderating focus groups

“Hands On Activity” by Kirby Urner
I’ve been busy the past two weeks moderating focus groups for a multi-city, multi-product customer experience project we’re doing at work. The groups got me thinking about some of the strategies and approaches I find useful when moderating. Here are some things I came up with (not in order of importance):
  • Make it interesting! No one likes to sit around a table for two hours answering questions in a back-and-forth, one-dimensional conversation, zoning out like they’re in some boring, irrelevant work meeting. If possible (and I think it almost always is), make portions of your group interactive. By keeping people engaged, everyone (including you, the moderator) will have a better time and, even more importantly, your data will be more interesting and useful, because people will likely be more inclined to participate, share, and care about contributing. For example, get people up and out of their seats for a hands-on activity in another part of the room, or have them work together as a team on a mini-project. Your options for this will be even greater if your group is taking place in a non-traditional location, like a community center, home, park, etc.
  • Incorporate worksheets. It’s not as interesting as hands-on activities, but it breaks things up a bit. But only do it if you’re going to use it as a segue into the next topic. By giving people some time to fill out a short survey or other worksheet during the group, it allows them to get their thoughts down on paper before the discussion. Don’t waste your time surveying folks in a focus group if you’re not going to dive deeper into their responses; that’s not what focus groups are for; it’s what market surveys are meant to accomplish. Worksheets also serve to create a record on paper for subsequent analysis or if you need to go back and verify something a participant said. One word of caution: if you’re going to use a worksheet, make sure you clearly explain its purpose and the instructions. When handing out worksheets in my groups, I focus the participants’ attention on me and the step-by-step directions I’m about to give them by saying something like “Now, before you get started on this, I’m going to explain what it is you’re going to be doing. If you take a look up here…”
  • Bring candy! If you’re like me, you do a lot of groups at night because more people tend to be available after working hours. If you find that your 8:00 pm group (or even your 5:30 group!) is lacking in enthusiasm, bring in a bowl of individually-wrapped candy bars when they’re busy working on a mini-project or worksheet. It’s a nice little surprise and usually perks them up a bit (a variety of flavors is helpful). I wouldn’t suggest having a bowl of candy on the table when the participants come in because it may just be a distraction, and people are sometimes too polite in front of strangers to be the first person to take some. If you find that your group isn’t “digging in”, one strategy to get people to take a piece is to take one yourself and hand the bowl to the person next to you, instructing them to “take some and pass it around.” Never fails! Just remember to respect the wishes of folks who may not want any for health or other reasons.
  • Joke! Laugh! Make it fun! How you set the stage when folks walk into the room truly affects the outcome of the group dynamics, the moods of participants, and therefore the quality of your data. If it’s in your nature to joke around, then do it! If it isn’t, then find some other way to inject some personality into the situation or be prepared to face the consequences. 
  • Go out and introduce yourself to the participants while they’re still in the waiting area. It might be unorthodox, but I believe there can be benefits. Stopping by and saying hi allows them to get a sense of your personality and know what to expect from you as a moderator. If you tell them you’re going to have fun and that you have some interesting things planned for them, maybe they’ll get excited. It’s not something I always do, but it hasn’t caused me any problems so far.
  • Go beyond the traditional focus group model and approach. Change it up as much as possible. Never stay on the same activity for more than 20 or 30 minutes unless it has multiple components. Surprise them by taking an alternate approach to gleaning insights and learning from them as experts of whatever product or service it is you’re studying.
Of course, these are just a few things I find helpful when moderating, so it’s not an exclusive list. There may be more to come later on – plenty for another post, I’m sure. 🙂

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