Monday, 20 June 2011

Focus group participants... how often is too often

I'm breaking my own rule tonight, and rather than working on the bus, I'm writing this post from home. The bus home is always busy (and today was no exception), but the bus this morning was also packed with people who inexplicably felt a need to be heading to the city before the sun was up. As a result I got stuck on there without enough room to type comfortably.

Anyways, moving on...

Something I do fairly often in my job is put together recruitment screeners for qualitative projects. It's something I've done a lot of in my time working in research, and I'm generally comfortable with my grasp of why I would or wouldn't include certain people or groups.

As with anything in research however, my understanding only appears complete until someone asks the question I haven't heard before. I had that recently around standard exclusions. One of the common exclusions in qualitative research is people who have recently taken part in another project. We exclude them so as to avoid getting 'focus group junkies', who turn up and say whatever is needed to walk away with the money.

The question I was asked though was 'Once we exclude this minority, why leave other recent research attendees out of our current project'.

Working this through in my head, there are of course certain groups who should not be taking part... if we're running a project about light bulbs, anyone who sells light bulbs, manufactures them or has recently taken part in research about them should not be involved. If however, Joe Smith (32 year old accountant) took part in research last month about toilet paper, why shouldn't he now be able to give his thoughts about light bulbs? *

To which the standard response would be 'But he'll understand too much about how the group works, and will know what we're getting at...'

So what?

Consumers today are ever more informed about how companies develop information, and very little that we do is going to truly suprise them. As a result, there are likely to be very few people without some understanding of what we're trying to get at, no matter how smart we think we're being in putting together activities and approaching our topic from an oblique angle.

At this point I therefore come back to my initial question, asking why we should be excluding these people? Could we instead consider flipping it around, and saying we want people who understand group process, that we don't want to waste 10 minutes at the start explaining why we need to video record the group, but instead want to be able to use the limited time we have to get at the important information we're being paid to collect?

In my mind, there is no question we need to exclude focus group junkies. However, if we're talking about someone who fits the spec and is willing to come and talk honestly about their attitudes and behaviour, then we should be seriously considering including them in our current light bulb research project, even if they taste tested a new brand of mouthwash last week!

Just as a final point, notice that I did say consider in the previous paragraph. As with most things in research, your requirements will vary depending on the exact needs of your project, and you'll need to make your decision on that basis. All I'm suggesting, (and saying I'll do in the future), is consider which exclusions are really necessary, and which I'm putting in because 'it's what we always use...'

*Note: Topic and names have been made up, and I'm disappointed with myself I didn't come up with a better name than Joe Smith!

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