Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Moderating focus groups

Focus group moderators should understand the objectives of the focus group, ask open questions and probe for answers, guide the discussion, facilitate positive group dynamics and try not to bias respondent answers.

“Oh, is that all I need to do?” you say, your lip curling in annoyance. “Who do you think I am? Oprah?”

With some planning, moderating a focus group is actually not that difficult. In fact, focus groups can be… yes, fun! And that leads to one of the biggest challenges of focus groups: moderator bias.

We’ve all got our own opinions, and in the informal atmosphere of a focus group it can be tempting to express them. We’re all friends here, right? But as the moderator, it’s your job to listen, and to take care that the questions you ask aren’t biased or leading, e.g. they don’t push the respondents towards answers you want to hear or participants think you want to hear.

When you’re reading off a survey script, it’s a bit easier to avoid bias. The question is right there on paper, has hopefully been carefully designed, and all you have to do is read it and try not to make funny faces. But in focus groups, even though you’ve got a discussion guide to follow, you may find yourself asking unscripted follow-up questions. After all, the point of a focus group is frequently exploratory – you may not be able to predict the direction the participants’ answers take you in.

Below are some tips that reduce the risk of moderator bias and can help you draw out useful information from focus group participants.

1. Be aware. It’s easy to express bias, especially if the respondents are criticizing your MFI! Put yourself in the role of an objective facilitator, and not a defender of your MFI.

2. Don’t express your own views. Don’t react positively or negatively to participant responses.

3. Explore disagreements between respondents. You can learn a lot from them – they may represent the points of view of different market segments inadvertently put into the same focus group. But be sure to maintain your role as the calm, interested facilitator. You’re there to get answers, not promote arguments.

4. Probe agreements between respondents. Echo or repeat back answers using different wording to ensure understanding and draw out responses.

5. Keep your questions short and simple, so as not to confuse participants or give you the opportunity to accidentally insert bias.

6. Maintain positive group dynamics, drawing out quiet participants and keeping more aggressive participants from dominating the conversation. To draw out quiet participants, you can ask them questions directly, make eye contact and smile, or ask him or her to comment on what someone else has just said. Domineering participants can be a bit more challenging. Techniques for handling them include avoiding eye contact, interrupting politely by telling them they’ve made an interesting point, and asking someone else what they think, and as a last resort, invite the assistant moderator to take the domineering person outside for an individual interview (because their opinions are so interesting!).

7. Directly test your hypotheses at the end of the focus group. For example, if you think the loan size should be included in your MFI’s advertising, the end of the focus group is a good time to ask this question outright. (The beginning of the focus group is the time to ask more general questions – where do they see your advertising, what’s the main message of your advertisements, etc.). Sometimes if participants know your hypothesis at the beginning of the focus group, it can bias their answers.

8. Thank the participants for their time! Time is money, and you've just spent theirs so you can increase your MFI's profits -- er, sustainability. At the very least, your participants deserve a round of applause for their help! (Though I like to give thank you gifts as well).

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