Playing with Process: Group Discussions

As innovators, we often turn inward and reflect on ways to innovate our own internal process in response to our own pain points. Innovating on how we innovate – how meta!

One recent example of this is the way that we approach the focus group. We’ve all participated in several (hundred) over the years – moderator in the front room, facilitating a group discussion about the merits of this concept or that design. Clients in the backroom, eating M&Ms, half catching the conversation and half catching up on e-mail.

When we hear “focus group”, we – meaning our clients, our participants, and ourselves - know what to expect and how to behave. Our participants have developed a routinized response to focus groups and the types of stimulus that we will discuss.  As innovators, it’s our goal to keep things fresh, authentic, and engaging – we want to shake things up a bit for our clients and our participants and shift the paradigm of what they expect when they enter the room.

Here are a couple ways we’ve been playing with the convention:

Getting more collaborative: sometimes the two-way mirror provides an important separation between client and participant, but it can also represent a lack of disclosure about what we are really trying to do (which is pretty ironic, considering how open and honest we are expecting our participants to get). it may be as simple as reframing the established roles of “observer” (client) and “observee” (research subject) and creating one universal role: participant. Treating clients and research subject as participants in the same discussion, in the same room, has increased our client’s enthusiasm and allowed them to develop more empathy and conviction with their consumers. It’s also increased engagement with our participants, who are more easily able to understand the important role they play in our process.

Getting more active: although we hope that the subjects we’re covering in groups are really interesting, in reality, sitting at a table for 2 hours straight can cause minds to wander. To break the monotony, we’ve explored rotating participants (and clients) between different “stations”, each with a different moderator. The physical act of getting a change of scenery has had profound effects on a participant’s (and client’s) level of engagement throughout the duration of the group.

Getting more tangible: good stimulus plays a vital role in driving meaningful conversations, and we’ve explored new ways to make stimulus come to life in a more tangible way for our participants – physical models of products with realistic packaging and graphics help participants to really envision that this concept could be real. We’ve also explored bringing a higher level of tangibility to the environment in which groups are held – whether it be building out a new environment (like an airplane interior) in a more traditional facility setting, or changing the location altogether and holding the discussion group in a rented-out house, one of the participants’ apartments, or a retail store food area (with permission, of course).

So we’ve shaken things up a bit, and in doing so we’ve gotten better at our jobs, but so have our clients AND our research participants. The paradigm of focus-group- learned-behavior has given way to increased engagement, deeper insight, and the satisfaction of truly co-created ideas and directions.

written by: Jenn Schiffman