Preparing For Group Interviews

Melanie S. Payne, Elrick and Lavidge, Inc.
ABSTRACT - Proper preparation for group interviews is essential to achieve meaningful study results. Responsibility for conducting the groups should be given to a well-trained qualitative researcher whose job it is to understand the research objectives and how the results will be used. Other aspects of preparation include writing the discussion guide and supervising recruitment of respondents. Prior to the groups, decisions must also be made concerning where the sessions will be held and the type of audio or video recording that will be done.
[ to cite ]:
Melanie S. Payne (1976) ,"Preparing For Group Interviews", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 434-436.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 434-436

PREPARING FOR GROUP INTERVIEWS

Melanie S. Payne, Elrick and Lavidge, Inc.

ABSTRACT -

Proper preparation for group interviews is essential to achieve meaningful study results. Responsibility for conducting the groups should be given to a well-trained qualitative researcher whose job it is to understand the research objectives and how the results will be used. Other aspects of preparation include writing the discussion guide and supervising recruitment of respondents. Prior to the groups, decisions must also be made concerning where the sessions will be held and the type of audio or video recording that will be done.

PREPARING FOR GROUP INTERVIEWS

We have just heard from Al Goldman about the development of interviews and the way they are used, and shortly Myril Axelrod will discuss the procedures that should be followed when conducting groups. Once you have decided that groups are the proper research tool to use and before you actually run the sessions, considerable attention should be devoted to preparing for them. Because group interviewing appears to be such an easy thing to do and the process itself seems so casual, the important step of preparation is often neglected and left to chance.

One of the most crucial elements of preparing a group study is to place the responsibility for it in the hands of a well-trained moderator/analyst. This may seem obvious, but because the technique has gained such popularity and because it seems so simple, more people are getting into the act, and they are often the wrong people. I have seen too many instances where, to save money, a company will turn the job of conducting groups over to a secretary. They give the assignment to her because she is a pleasant individual who gets along well with people and she is a good conversationalist. That is not enough, however, because what is required is someone thoroughly grounded in the theory and technique of what group interviewing is all about.

Once the assignment has been placed in the hands of the right person, the first order of business in preparing for a group interview is to gain a thorough understanding of the problem. Occasionally this means helping the client understand the problem, too. Many clients, of course, know precisely what their needs are and how they will use the results, but all too often the person requesting the focus group research does not really know what he wants to find out or what he will do with the information once the study is completed. In this latter instance, he may know simply that he has a problem, and because the group approach is simplistic, he decides that is what he will do, without really thinking through the issues involved.

In either case, it becomes the researcher's job to clearly spell out the reasons the research is being done, the specific areas to be covered in the groups, and how the results are going to be used once the research is completed. Let me give you an example. Assume you have been asked to do some work for a company that has, (1), done virtually no consumer research and, (2), does not have an understanding of what its customer's attitudes about the company's products are. In this instance, your first job will be to educate the client about what the group interview technique can and cannot do. Secondly, when you actually conduct the group discussions you will probably have to devote some of your efforts to gathering basic attitudinal information about the product category in general and your client's product in particular.

The approach just outlined will be very different from one you would use with a client who has a long history of researching his products and now wants some group sessions to help him develop the concept for a line extension of an existing brand. In these sessions you would shorten the background gathering and move quickly to the heart of the matter -- the new product. My point here is that all groups do not follow the same format and the correct approach to use is a function of the nature of the problem to be tackled.

As you gain an understanding of the problem, you should begin making a list of specific questions to be explored in the research. Some of these questions will be raised by the client, others will occur to you, and the combined list will become the skeleton for your discussion outline. The easiest and most useful way to handle the questions is to organize them by areas or topics so they become clustered in logical groupings. For example, if you are doing some research on a new hot breakfast cereal, you might want to begin with a general discussion of what is served at breakfast and then refine that by having respondents describe weekday versus weekend breakfasts. From there you might move on to focus on cereals, both hot and cold, then narrow down to hot cereals only. At this point you would probably introduce the concept for the new product, and you might even have some actual product prepared for respondents to taste. Just like a good story, a group discussion should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Typically, as in this example, the movement is from the general to the specific.

The discussion guide itself should be fairly simple --two or three typed pages, double spaced. It is an outline of the key areas and questions to be covered and not an exhaustive dissertation of every conceivable issue that might be probed for. If you understand what you want to do in a group and have the questions pretty well fixed in your mind, you should hardly have to refer to your outline once you are in the group setting itself. I suppose we all have our own little tricks for achieving this goal. My own personal quirk is that I must sit down at the typewriter and personally bat out the discussion guide I am going to use. Even if someone has prepared a perfectly adequate guide for me, I cannot seem to internalize it unless I type it myself.

Another essential element in the preparation of a guide, whether you have my kind of hang-up or not, is an adequate amount of time to think about the topic of your discussion. I feel that a minimum of a couple days is necessary to allow the topic area to sufficiently sink in. I don't mean to say that one should spend two or three days working on an outline, but you do need time to mull over in your mind what you are. going to cover in a session. I find that I do this when I am preparing dinner, or riding the train to work, putting on my makeup, or whatever. No moderator, no matter how experienced he or she is, can be handed a group discussion guide half an hour before a group and be expected to conduct a first-rate interview.

At the same time you are involved in the process of understanding the problem and preparing the discussion guide, recruiting for the group should be getting under way. This will generally be taken care of by someone other than yourself. Just as the moderating should not be handled by an amateur, recruiting too should be supervised by a specialist. It may seem simple enough to gather together several "warm bodies" for a group discussion, but once again I have seen the amateurs who thought this was such a snap fall flat on their faces. So the moral of the story is pay a little more and find someone who knows what they are about to recruit your groups.

Your responsibility in working with the recruiters is to tell them exactly who you want and who you don't want in your groups. Let's look at the exclusions first. You do not want people who work for marketing research companies or advertising agencies or those employed by your client or any of his competitors. This is fairly obvious. You will also want to screen out certain groups who, for some reason, might bias your results. One of the worst examples I ever heard along those lines happened to a researcher who was doing some conceptual work on baby food and wanted to interview mothers of infants concerning feeding practices. The project director did not learn until the group had assembled that all the respondents belonged to the Leche League. These are women who breast-feed their babies and, not only do they breast-feed, they belong to a league of breast feeders. Needless to say, their responses were hardly typical of all young mothers.

The recruiter should have known better than to have pulled a stunt like that, but that little episode which happened more than 10 years ago taught me to never leave anything to chance. You should always stipulate that you want respondents recruited from a wide area, and that you do not want them to come from the same neighborhood or church or club or ethnic group. My own feeling is that it's okay if two people, hut no more than two, know each other in a group, that is they may come in pairs if necessary. This is simply being realistic because often a woman will not agree to participate in a session unless she can come with a friend.

The question of professional respondents always arises -- these are the people who make a habit or perhaps even a living of participating in groups. The opposite of the professional respondent is the so-called virgin respondent -- the person who has never taken part in a group session. What you should ask for and can realistically expect lies somewhere between these two extremes. If a recruiter is providing you with the same faces again and again, you had better take your business elsewhere. Keep in m/nd that if you have seen those people repeatedly you can be pretty sure that they have recently been respondents in someone else's groups, too.

On the other hand, be fair with your recruiter and do not demand that they provide you with virgin respondents. There is simply too much group interviewing being done these days for that to be a reasonable request. I once calculated that with the number of groups being done each week in Chicago, if everyone demanded virgin respondents we would have exhausted the entire population of the city in a period of eight years. I generally ask that respondents in my sessions have not participated in a group within the preceding six months or perhaps within the preceding year. You will find, however, that even with this sort of screening, people enjoy participating in groups so much that they will lie about not having been interviewed so that they can come back soon again.

After you have stipulated whom you don't want attending, you must be very specific about whom you do want. For example, if you are conducting a study on new brand of frozen french fries, you do not simply ask for people who eat french fries. Rather, you ask for women who have bought, and prepared for their families, at least two pounds of frozen french fries within the past month. Set your qualifications specifically and precisely and you won't be disappointed by coming face to face with a group of women who have little interest in your product category and who, therefore, cannot be the least bit of help to you.

How many respondents to include in a group is another key issue and one that I find myself getting into arguments about all the time. I am going to be very dogmatic on this point and say that no group discussion should ever have any more than eight respondents. If you, as a moderator, are performing your job correctly, six or seven people is perfectly adequate. I am appalled at the trend which seems to be in vogue now to demand ten or twelve respondents per group. What we want to accomplish with these people we have recruited is to carry out a discussion in which everyone participates as a group. With more than eight people, this process simply cannot occur naturally. The group breaks down and you, as moderator, are faced with the chaos of two or more splinter conversations going on simultaneously. To maintain control you then have the choice of policing the group conversation, thereby destroying the dynamic process you wanted to set up in the first place, or you retreat to the position of having to conduct a series of individual interviews in a group setting. Either solution is unsatisfactory.

At the time respondents are recruited for a group they should be told how long it will last. I generally ask people to be prepared to stay two hours even if I don't expect the session to last that long. What you want to avoid is underestimating the time involved. Men and women who come expecting to spend an hour get very fidgety when that hour is up. At that point they will say anything just to get the group over with and get out, leaving you with a lot of results that you can't have very much faith in. Two hours is about the outside limit for a productive group session. Occasionally some respondents get so wound up with a topic they will, of their own choosing, stay on and on. But normally a group will have said all that it's going to say by the end of the second hour.

It is possible to conduct a group interview literally anywhere there is enough room to seat the respondents and yourself. I have done them in church basements and in posh boardrooms and just about anywhere else you can imagine in between. I personally do not feel that the setting is nearly as important as the tone you set and the rapport you establish with the respondents. If they feel you are on the same wave length with them, you'll get a good interview no matter where you are.

The most desirable facility these days, especially from a client's point of view, is an interviewing room equipped with a one-way mirror and a comfortable room from which to view the group in progress. That viewing room should be as soundproof as possible so that the conversations of the observers cannot be heard by the respondents. Some research companies seem to be especially proud of the fact that they have well-stocked open bars in their viewing rooms. I find this not only unnecessary but offensive because it tends to turn the group session into some sort of charade rather than the serious business that it should be.

The furnishings in the interviewing room, per se, should be comfortable, but they need not be elaborate. There are some who prefer a living room atmosphere with coffee tables and easy chairs. My own preference is for a large conference room table that will seat eight or nine people without crowding. I prefer the table because I think it gives respondents something to hang on to -- both literally and figuratively. Many men and women are very nervous when they come to a group discussion because they don't know what to expect. If they can sit down at a table, set down their coffee cups and fill out a short questionnaire covering product usage and demographics, it seems to put them at ease. Theoretically, people can accomplish the same end sitting in easy chairs clustered around coffee tables. But I find that in such a setting there is a lot of fumbling with clipboards, pencils, coffee cups and ashtrays. Also, women feel compelled to pull their skirts down to cover their knees, especially in a room with a very obvious one-way mirror. I prefer to avoid this altogether by conducting sessions around a conference table.

The presence of such a table also sets a somewhat businesslike tone to the session, and I don't think that's at all undesirable. While you want the respondents to he comfortable, this is a research session and not a neighborhood coffee klatch, and they surely know that ahead of time. They are not there just to shoot the breeze; they are being paid for their participation, and their conversations are being tape recorded. So it seems to me that to force all of this into a simulated home setting doesn't really accomplish very much.

I mentioned tape recording, and the extent to which you will record the proceedings is another decision you will have to make. The less gadgetry you have to worry about, the easier your life will be. If the facility you are using is equipped with an overhead microphone and a sound system, this can be an advantage. But if you don't have this, it's no cause for alarm. Any reel-to-reel tape recorder that can pick up the conversation will do. Also, I routinely take along a small cassette tape recorder to use as a back up. These recorders generally run on batteries, which can be a lifesaver if the electricity fails -- something that has happened to me more than once.

In at least 99 percent of the group interviews you do, audio taping is all you should need. But I have found as this group interviewing business becomes more elaborate, clients are requesting video taping more frequently. My guess is that in many of these cases the video tapes end up being stored on a shelf and are never looked at again. Few people have the interest or stamina to sit and stare at eight to ten hours of film after the fact, so if the tape is going to be used at all it should be edited. This is an extremely time-consuming process, and no one can have an appreciation of how much time it takes until he has been through it once. And believe me, once is enough. Both the filming and the editing are expensive, and my feeling is that much of the time and money spent on video tape might have been better invested elsewhere. But it is the client's money, and he can spend it in any way he chooses.

Just remember that if you are planning to videotape you must meet some special conditions, including lots of ceiling light and no windows or back lighting behind the respondents (or you will end up with shadows instead of faces). Also, to obtain a tape that has any visual interest at all, you should hire a professional cameraman whose job it is to follow the discussion with the camera and zoom in and out to pick up the person speaking. The alternative to this is a fixed camera with a wide-angle lens that is visually no better than an audio tape.

In the past 15 minutes I have taken you through approximately two weeks worth of preparation for a group interview. Some of the issues I covered may have seemed obvious, others trivial, but from where I sit, all are essential. Going back to the point I made at the outset, to the uninitiated, the amateur, or the outsider, group interviewing appears to be a simple, casual process that one just waltzes through. But as the case with everything from raising children to making a soufflT, if it ends up being done well, it didn't just happen; it was planned for.

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