Focus groups vs. roundtable discussions

This is the sixth post in my Customer Research series.

When I do qualitative research, invariably someone would say: “oh, so you are doing focus groups!” which usually makes me cringe.  The reality is that 99% of the time I am not doing focus groups.   I may be doing detailed interviews or observations which are 1-on-1 techniques.  Or I may be doing a photo essay or journal study.  Or I may be doing roundtable discussions.

For those, I adhere to the same best practices one uses to run focus groups:

  • Include no more than 8 participants per session.
  • Craft a screening questionnaire and recruit carefully to ensure you get the right crowd.
  • Separate the genders. You get much more candid discussions that way (especially for younger demographics).
  • Control the discussion. Ensure everyone at the table has a turn (including the reticent ones).
  • Record the discussion on video for future reference.

Such a roundtable discussion becomes a focus group only if two more criteria are met:

  • The moderator is an independent third party who is engaged by the company to do this research.
  • The discussion is held in a research facility with one-way glass.

I’m old schooled.  I insist on using an independent moderator for focus groups.  In my experience, employees tend to be too close to the products and services provided by the employer.  They have assumptions and expectations that may impact their ability to be impartial.  A third party moderator has no such baggage. He or she is free to learn about the product by asking probing questions, then lead a discussion where more probing questions are asked.  The resulting quality of the discussion tends to be much higher and more unbounded for this reason.

As for the facility, the one-way-glass room has superb benefits. It allows a lot more people from the company to observe. It also  removes employees from the participants, helping to foster a more genuine discussion. It costs more than using the company lunch room, but I have never felt like I didn’t get my money’s worth in such a facility.

What’s your take? Would you do a focus group in a hotel meeting room? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Responses

  1. Josh Duncan
    | Reply

    100% agree. Conducting focus groups in a proper research facility including moderator, video recording, and one-way glass is my preferred way to insure genuine discussions. I have seen groups done in a hotel meeting room before and there is something about the setting that reduces the effectiveness.

    I do think you can use someone from your organization as an internal moderator but they have to have past experience in leading sessions to make sure bias is not introduced and the right questions are asked. That being said, if you can afford it, a professional moderator is usually worth the investment.

    I am interested in hearing more about your thoughts on separating genders. I can definitely see the benefits for a younger audience but wondering if the need to separate older participants is dependent on the research topic?

    Thanks for the post,


    • Elaine Chen
      | Reply

      Hi Josh,

      I’ve moderated myself or seen my coworkers moderate a discussion. I’ve found that it is really hard to do a good job due to the engrained tribal knowledge about the company and product 🙂 It’s also been helpful to chat with a professional moderator since they are looking at the whole thing with a fresh pair of eyes, and the debrief can be almost as helpful as the actual focus group discussion itself.

      Regarding separating genders, I agree that the need to separate goes up with youth and is dependent on topic. But if the budget allows it, it just makes life less complicated. That said, I think some research is always better than no research, so if budget doesn’t allow it, I’ll bend rules and do things on the cheap anyways 🙂


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