Why Focus Groups Are Losing Their Focus

It’s time to kill the focus group, bury it, eat sandwiches, tell a few funny stories and then deliver the eulogy on how this pillar of market research has far outlived its usefulness. Think of it like saying goodbye to the drunken, dysfunctional uncle whose damage to the family nobody could really bear to discuss.

This is not the eulogy. I am neither friend nor family member of the focus group. My relationship with it is limited to receiving $20 at the age of 12 to taste test a few chocolate bars and reviewing reports so bereft of ‘insights’ it’s no wonder that upwards of 80 percent of products fail within six months of launch. Rather, think of this as yet another call for euthanasia on behalf of the functional side of the entire research family.

Google something like: ‘The problem with focus groups’ and you’ll discover a growing list of strategists, sociologists, anthropologists, human factors people, UX and usability specialists, business people, consultants and others similarly calling for this end. Some would kill the focus group because, in being a part of the green lighting of ideas, it is implicated in that alarmingly high percentage of new product failures. These are the dreaded false positive cases: consumers (supposedly) reporting that they need, love, like and would buy a product. Of course, they and millions of their consumer peers ultimately do not make that purchase.

Others reporting from the frontlines of auto, kitchenware, digital commerce, soft drink, cereal and other design industries would kill the focus group because it has, time and again, reported negatively on an idea only to have a very brave product manager push forward, go to market and score a success with consumers. These are what I’ll call the colonoscopy cases: the likelihood that few men would have responded positively to the suggestion of sticking something up their bum to detect cancer.

The reasons for focus group flubs are many: methodological flaws in session design; inexperienced, leading or crappy moderators; poor or incorrect participant sampling; a badly written or misinterpreted report; reports that never arrive at the upper executive echelons because so much money has already been invested in the concept or its development that research folks fear losing their jobs; and, of course, the big reason – focus groups organizers pay people to do what they cannot do. Focus groups do not measure or convey what people think when they make a purchase, they measure or convey what people think when participating in a focus group. As a result, any combination of group think, peer pressure, the desire to please the moderator or an interest in the $100, free sandwiches and bottomless coffee can lead consumers into the territory of a frequently cited designer’s joke: the camel is a horse conceived by committee.

As someone who practices human-centered research on the anthropology side of the business game, I am particularly sensitive to the fact that what people say versus what people do can be, and usually is, very different. But the colonoscopy cases and false positives that occur because of this are not my main reason for putting a bounty on the head of the focus group. Before any of the group talk begins, the critical flaw of the focus group is location, location, location.

The focus group treats its participants as if they were a combination of school child, lab rat and Hannibal Lecter. In strip malls and office buildings, these ‘subjects’, ‘consumers’ or – worse yet – ‘target consumers’ are sequestered around a table, in front of a discretely located video camera and behind 2-way mirrors. On the other side of that glass, and with take-out menus, comfy chairs, much tastier snacks and a fridge full of drinks, sit the observers – stake-holders, clients and even ‘expert’ analysts who exert a sense ownership or control over the participants for a two-hour or so window that verges on symbolic violence.

Given the $100 (or whatever) incentive, there is an expectation that every one of the participants around the table will strip down to completely bare their opinions, attitudes and ideas for these observers in a setting so voyeuristic it verges on the peep show. Like the stripper who strategically metes out the ‘You’re so special’ eye to front-row clients, who can blame participants for stretching their truths or not even being capable of speaking in the realm of ‘truth’ that these observers seek?

Like the stripper’s stage, the focus group’s location shapes the rules and regulations that govern interaction and performance. Within its walls and behind its mirror, there are disturbing dynamics of social power at play that can only be properly deciphered through the lenses of Bentham and Foucault.

Jeremy Bentham was an 18th century English philosopher, social theorist and jurist who influenced the development of welfarism, utilitarianism, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty. He also introduced the idea of the panopticon, a building designed as a circular structure that allows its masters the power to observe (opticon) all (pan) of the population of an institution without them knowing that they are being watched. For such a seemingly liberal and progressive guy, Bentham’s description of the panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” was disturbingly Orwellian.

Michel Foucault certainly seemed to think so. One of the most prolific of 20th century philosophers, Foucault hit the panic button on the panopticon and its process and result – panopticism – is his book, Discipline and Punish. A critic of social insti-=tutions, prison systems, psychiatry and the human sciences, he wrote extensively about how public spaces and technologies were increasingly being designed to monitor and, thus, regulate the behavior of prisoners, school kids, psychiatric patients and ordinary citizens. Perhaps the best example of how panopticism is alive and well: CCTV on every street corner in a big city like London as a tool to ‘see’ and ‘discipline’ the population.

Following Foucault, one could say that the setting and the methodology of the focus group reveal the disciplinary nature of market research and its corporate sponsor. Like the overseers of the prison, the psychiatric ward and the school, the corporation exhibits a pervasive inclination to observe (“Tell us your opinion”) and normalize (“So that we might better control it”) the unpredictable opinions and behaviors of that potentially dangerous ‘other,’ the consumer.

Constructed and armed with technologies of surveillance so that it can function automatically, the ongoing efficiency of the panopticon is based, in part, on the anonymity and decentering of observation. The focus group with its 2-way mirrors achieves this anonymity, allowing clients to excuse themselves from participating out of some noble nod to methodological objectivity that their bodily presence will taint the discussion and research findings. As any anthropologist sensitive to the powers and politics of conducting ethnographic fieldwork will tell you, this view is about as methodologically realistic as Starfleet’s Prime Directive.

But that’s not the real reason for opting out of the discussion. Recognized or not, the market research industry and its corporate sponsors have so fully distanced themselves from consumers as ‘targets’ or ‘segments’ that to engage with them around the table would be to risk the kind of contamination that floats in the air of the prison or the psychiatric hospital. To protect themselves from the dangers of this contamination and invite more stake-holders into the domain of observation, increasing numbers of corporate sponsors have taken to paying for Focus Vision, the online service that describes itself as “the leading global provider of live video trans-mission, analysis and archive solutions for the qualitative market research industry.”

Somehow, according to Focus Vision, this technology increases key stakeholder participation. How this is possible, when their participation has never been a part of the equation, is unclear. What is clear is that people who have the inclination or critical faculties to think about how consumer insights are generated and put to use are increasingly calling for the death of the focus group. Ask the participative design or ethnographic relative if she wants to write the eulogy. I’m just here for the sandwiches.

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.