(Re)Searching for the Right Method

— lessons from a research project —

Sep 8 · 5 min read

A couple of months ago, a client came to me and asked for my help. He wanted to reposition and rebrand the business, a successful Romanian newspaper and news website, but he and his team had little knowledge into what. Or how.

“More premium” — he stuttered. “Away from tabloid sensationalism.”

That’s gonna be hard — I told myself. After all, their name is all-but-synonymous with naked women and gossip. But hell, I like challenges, let’s do this. Lucky for myself (and them), I had the inspiration to ask “why”. Why would they want to forget about their tabloid past and reposition themselves as something entirely different?

It took me three meetings and lots of coffee to find out that a year ago or so they have conducted some qualitative research with a random boutique agency — a research that concluded that their visitors would prefer real news over fake boobs. Which method did they use? — I asked, although I knew the answer.

Having worked in a research agency, I knew very well how and why research methodologies are chosen, why focus groups are preferred over other methods regardless of their appropriateness. It all comes down to time and money. Let me break it down to you.

Let’s presume that you need to talk with 24 people before drawing any conclusions. Since focus groups generally consist of 6 participants, you would need 4. That is, 2 working days. On the other hand, if you were to carry one-to-one in-depth interviews, you would spend 12 days gathering data. Why would you want to keep your moderator busy for 12 working days when you could get just as much money from a client in 2 working days?

Just as much money, but not just as much information. In many cases, focus groups offer only a shallow insight into a topic — particularly when compared with individual interviews. And that’s not their only drawback.

Especially when in a group, research subjects tend to give socially desirable responses. After all, nobody wants to be perceived by others as sucking up or shallow — people want to be seen in the best possible light and will behave accordingly.

Additionally, participants may feel under pressure to give similar answers to the moderator’s questions or to agree with the dominant view. Not only once have I seen people changing their mind within minutes just to comply with the group’s perceived values.

What do you think of that? “Oh, I adore it!” *5 minutes later* “You know what, I don’t like it that much…”

You get the picture.

a glimpse into the life of a moderator and into the dynamics of focus groups

Back to my client, I understood that what he wanted was a psychographic research with a dash of UX. He wanted to discover the visitors’ attitudes, opinions and interests, as well as their online behaviour. He wanted to understand who the visitors are (beyond demographics), the type of content they really want to see and how they navigate the website.

So I set off on the long journey of interviewing 32 people, interviews that lasted 2–3 hours each — all of them conducted in the participants’ homes. And there’s a good reason for that. Actually, there’s more. For once, it’s easier for people to open up in a place where they feel safe and comfortable being who they are. Secondly, ethnographic visits give you context — which helps you understand more deeply who that person really is. Lastly, detecting deception is easier. You’re fed up with gossip, huh? It’s interesting that you have all these celebrity magazines lying on the floor. Boom, busted!

I’ve seen people crying, laughing hysterically, getting dressed in front of me and arguing with their spouses. I’ve seen it all. I even saw a cheeky ironing board cover depicting a man wearing just a towel — as the lady was ironing and the board was getting warmer…. You know where this goes.

yes, it actually exists

But most importantly, I managed to answer my client’s questions. I saw people in their rawness and that allowed me to conclude that they do like reading about the latest gossip and sharing their daily horoscope with their dear ones. That they do like health and lifestyle articles and regarding the pain of others (Susan Sontag, you were right). And that there’s no point in repositioning and rebranding the brand — at least not as a premium brand. Not unless they want to risk losing most of their current readers.

Conducting a usability test with each participant allowed me to conclude that labelling the icon with the word “Menu” would significantly increase the amount of clicks as compared to a normal hamburger menu — a menu most of client’s visitors failed to recognise it as such. That opening external links in a new window is a bad idea when it comes to mobile browsing since most didn’t know how to switch between different open windows, how to return to the initial window. And that colour-coding news categories would be helpful.

text labels such as ”Menu” are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity

To wrap it up, I’m not saying that focus groups are entirely bad. They can be useful for generating new ideas (for example, by brainstorming), pre-testing topics or ideas or for getting a quick feedback. What I’m trying to point out here is that focus groups are not the only research method and that other methods might work better. Bare that in mind the next time an agency or a researcher tries to shove them down your throat.

P.S. Always try to validate qualitative findings by quantitative data.

Laura Pătru

Written by

passionate researcher, book nerd, travel addict, fox lover, pistachio devourer, troublemaker.

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