Focus Groups Stifle Creativity

Nine people sit around a table in a well-lit room. One, at the front, has a pile of papers and seems to be in control. In the back room, clients are expecting a lively conversation about their very interesting topic. The introductions are over and the questions begin. But each person is only interacting with the person with the papers. Sure, someone occasionally acknowledges a statement from the other people in the room, but the majority of the content could have been gathered in a one-on-one interview. 

Does this sound like the focus groups you’re familiar with? It seems like this scene plays out more than it should. The stated goal of a focus group is to bring six to eight people together so that they can have a conversation about a topic that is interesting to the client. But often, no such conversation takes place. Instead, the moderator pushes through a series of questions, collects answers from the respondents and makes note of consensus.

That method works well for certain kinds of projects, like concept refinement and testing. Where I see focus groups failing to deliver are in projects where the objectives are more open, creative, and exploratory. To be clear: I do not think that the focus group format fails because eight people in a room cannot be creative or have a deep discussion about a topic—they can. Rather, I think focus groups fail in these situations because of the way they are designed and because of entrenched expectations about what happens in a focus group.

So what does cause focus groups to be ineffective? In my opinion, it’s timing, the discussion guide, and the social awkwardness of strangers in a well-lit room.

Focus Group Creativity Killer #1—Timing

Most in-depth interviews (IDIs) are an hour long—one hour with two people talking. So why, when we add seven more people to the mix, do we only double that time? Two hours is really not a long time to spend with eight other people—particularly if you intend on finding out what really drives their opinions and decisions, and especially if they are complete strangers. In 120 minutes, the respondents are expected to feel comfortable enough with the moderator, other people in the room, and the one-way mirror hiding faceless observers to open up about the topic at hand and move beyond their most superficial thoughts on it. In my experience, the moderator usually has to cover quite a bit of ground. While this ground is generally on the same overall topic, these micro-topic shifts still prevent the eight people in the room from really focusing on any issue for more than a few minutes.

The problem of timing is really two-fold:

  • Two hours is too short for most people to feel comfortable with a group of strangers.
  • Two hours is enough time for deep thought on one or two topics, but not six, or worse, 30.

The solution: when the objective of a project is exploration or creativity, consider conducting longer sessions—much longer sessions. The shortest creative sessions we run are four hours. Eight hour groups are the norm. These longer sessions give the participants enough time to really consider the topics and allow for tangents and off-topic conversation that can be pulled back into the session as stimulus. These longer groups also allow time for a significant snack or meal break. It is amazing how much more relaxed and open the respondents become after some unstructured socializing with each other.

Focus Group Creativity Killer #2—The Discussion Guide

When designing a discussion guide and flow of a focus group, both the client team and the moderator face a variety of pressures. There are generally a number of stakeholders, all of whom would like feedback from the consumers while they have them captive. This can lead to jam-packed, highly-scripted discussion guides that only leave room for reaction without room for actual discussion. A more scripted approach works in IDIs because there are fewer variables, and the goal is to understand the opinion of a single person. However, in a focus group, where the goal is thoughtful conversation about a topic, a strict script and tight schedule only stifle that conversation.

To promote conversation in our co-creation sessions, there is no set discussion guide. We work with our clients to identify a series of topics that should be covered, and then we design activities that provoke thought about these topics. These activities are almost always a mix of solo, pair, and group work. Thought and discussion on each topic are generally separated into two parts: the solo work and small-group discussion, and then full-group discussion. If the topic warrants it, the respondents are asked further questions to clarify, and given stimulus to think about while they are discussing it. The direct answers to these questions are rarely explicitly collected. This type of direct, factual questioning dampens conversation and provides information that would be better collected in IDIs or quantitative studies.

Focus Group Creativity Killer #3—Social Awkwardness

Even as a raging extrovert, I am not completely comfortable expressing the full strength of my convictions or deepest motivations to a group of people who I do not know. In that situation, before I tip my hand and start to argue my point, I want to know—or think I know—how the people in the room are going to react. The level of comfort required to freely express the information clients are looking for does not always come easily. In fact, when my colleague described a typical focus group set-up to a psychologist friend of his, the psychologist was horrified that this was the accepted approach to get humans to interact naturally. The standard focus group format is actually the perfect setting for half-truths, little white lies, and confabulation that make the speaker's actions, motivations, and desires look better than they actually are—not at all the honest, true-to-life information most clients are looking to gain from a focus group. 

When the goal is creativity, an Ideas To Go project design often includes activities such as collaging, story-telling, or other creative outlets that require trust in your fellow participants. These activities are designed to get people to think beyond the rational, and share deeper, more emotional thoughts and motivations. These are also activities that most people do not do every day. So, getting the best content out of these exercises requires time for participants to understand the task as well as gain a certain level of trust that the other respondents will not react poorly to their creations. 

For creative sessions, we bring in the consumers a few days ahead of time for a brief orientation session. During this session, we focus on creative techniques and the activities that we will be introducing during the session. We do not introduce the topic of the creative session, but rather work on something unrelated with the goal of familiarizing the consumers with each other and the types of tasks we are going to ask them to do. That way, when we bring them all together again, everyone is at least passingly familiar with the location, process and other participants.

So to sum up: it often seems that focus groups are really just eight interviews that happen to take place in the same room, at the same time. And that’s fine if that’s the kind of feedback you want to collect. But when you’re operating at the front end of the innovation process, consider breaking away from the typical focus group model and looking for something better. 

If you found this article interesting, check out How Focus Groups Are Victims Of Confabulation

Greg Cobb is an Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2017 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Greg Cobb

Greg Cobb is a Creative Process Designer and Facilitator as well as the creator of Ideas To Go’s Inspire® visual survey platform. Greg has a BA in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.  Prior to joining Ideas To Go in 2011, Greg led the US consumer division at a leading global market research firm.  Facilitating innovation sessions and moderating consumer interviews and groups since 2007, Greg has worked extensively in most consumer categories as well as pharma, B2B, and automotive.