Mistakes You Might Be Making With Qualitative Research (and how to avoid them)

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Qualitative research, particularly focus groups, are a very popular research method. They give clients the opportunity to observe and listen to respondents, unlike online quantitative research.

Focus groups can be very valuable when starting your research, but there will be some challenges. Here are some of the most common mistakes and how you can avoid them.

Drawing projectable conclusions

By definition, focus groups do not provide conclusions that can be projected to the larger population.

  • Limited numbers of respondents are too small to draw conclusions.
  • Focus groups are usually conducted in two to three markets. This does not result in a geographic or demographic representative sample of consumers needed to draw broad, projectable conclusions.
  • Focus groups should be used to explore hypotheses and provide directional guidance.
  • Focus groups are not a quantitative methodology and should not be used definitively.

Think about this: Would you consider making multi-million dollar decisions based on feedback from 20 people across two cities?

Not doing follow up quantitative research

Most focus groups are the initial phase of a two (or more) phase research plan.

  • Findings from focus groups can be used for appropriate guidance in the development of the follow up quantitative research.
  • The quantitative phase is then used to provide definitive, projectable insights and to make business decisions.
  • However, often due to timing or budget constraints, the follow up quantitative phase(s) never happens.

This puts you in the same place and creates the same risks as discussed previously. You will be making major decisions based on feedback from only a few consumers.

Using “data” quantitatively

Often in focus groups, respondents are asked their opinions about concepts or products.  While the primary focus is on qualitative type questions such as likes, dislikes, what would change, and so forth, respondents are sometimes asked to provide a numerical rating.

  • This is done to help respondents with their thinking or “put a stake in the ground” on their opinions, making it less likely for them to be swayed by other respondent’s opinions.
  • The problem is…everyone in the back room observing dutifully records these numerical ratings, sums or calculates averages, and then treats them like quantitative data because they are numbers. You’ll recognize the theme here, this can be grossly misleading.
  • These “data” come from only a small number of consumers and simply cannot be used as if it were from a larger sample quantitative survey.

In fact, many focus groups reports do not include these “data” to ensure they are not used improperly.

 Latching onto a single respondent’s comments

Naturally enough, everybody observing in the backroom brings their own thoughts regarding what they believe and what they expect to hear from the focus group respondents. Unfortunately, this can lead to very selective listening.

  • Once someone in the back room hears a respondent voice an opinion that matches their own, there can be a tendency to dismiss or not really hear other respondents’ responses.
  • When listening to a diverse set of comments from different respondents, people observing in the back room with divergent opinions may find at least one respondent who agrees with them.
  • Once the observer finds someone who agrees with them they may tune out (either intentionally or subconsciously) everything else being said.
  • Thus, different observers can come away with different thoughts on what they just witnessed.

The best way to avoid this is to have a debrief at the end of the day once the focus groups are completed. This allows for the clients to have a discussion on what they believe they heard and can lead to a consensus rather than everyone walking away with a different take.

Not taking full advantage of your moderator

Like any piece of research, the end result is only as good as the input. With focus groups, your moderator is the key to success in leading the discussion to elicit the learning and insights you seek.

  • To maximize the productivity of the discussion, make sure your moderator is fully prepared.
  • This does not mean showing up 30 minutes before the first group for a quick, and only, meeting on the project.
  • Meet with your moderator in advance with a detailed conversation about your objectives, specific points to be covered, and any stimuli you might show to respondents.
  • Between groups, talk to your moderator about what worked well and what did not, and modifications to the discussion.

The more you communicate with your moderator during the entire process, the more you will get out of the research.

Simply not paying attention

You’ve paid a lot of money to set up the focus groups (facility costs, recruiting costs, incentives for respondents, etc.). There are many people who have shown up to observe from the backroom. So, what happens all too often?

  • The observers simply don’t listen intently.  Between taking phone calls, answering email, having side conversations, etc., they often miss too much of the focus group discussion.
  • Yes, simply paying attention sounds almost ridiculously obvious, but it doesn’t always happen as you might expect..
  • And the net effect is that the attendees don’t get the benefit of the whole story from the focus groups.

The above discussion focused on the most common qualitative research method, focus groups.  However,  many of the points discussed certainly apply to other types of qualitative projects (one-on-one interviews, ethnography/observational research, or anything with a limited sample size) and should be on your “watch out” checklist when conducting this type of research.