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"How to Be A Good Focus Group Observer" Research Notes, Magnet Communications, 2001

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While focus groups seem like a rather simple process - get a bunch of people around a table and talk about something - a lot of planning goes into making an effective focus group. One of the important, and perhaps, under-rated elements is the participation of the group's observers. Now, "participating observer" may seem like an oxymoron, but, in fact, it is quite accurate. Let's take a step back, first, in order to describe the dynamics of a typical focus group.

  • Between eight and twelve people sit around a large conference table in a specially designed facility that is wired for audio taping the session.
    • Respondents were previously screened and recruited according to specifications provided by the researcher and the client.
    • The moderator sits at one end of the table, with her/his back to the observers.

  • Behind the moderator is a large two-way mirror that allows unobtrusive observation of the group.
    • Respondents cannot see the observers behind the mirror when the lights are out in the observation room, not can the observers be heard (given a normal volume).
    • For ethical considerations, respondents are told that they are being observed, but not by whom.

  • In front of the mirror, an active, fluid discussion takes place among respondents, guided by the moderator and a discussion guide (a list of questions and topics written by the researcher - usually the moderator - and the client). Other materials or stimuli may be used, depending on the objectives of the study.
    • The discussion guide is aptly named: it is a guide which is usually modified, re-written, re-ordered, and in some cases, ignored, in the course of the study.
    • It is common for the guide to be re-written or revised in between groups, as learnings from one group impact the direction of the discussion in subsequent groups.
    • Observers have copies of the discussion guide being used, as well as other materials and stimuli to which respondents may be exposed.

How to be a good observer In observing anything, different people will tend to hear different things. For this reason alone, it is good to have more than one person behind the mirror, listening to the discussion, taking notes, and interacting with the moderator when necessary. In fact, it is very important to have at least one account person behind the mirror, especially when clients are present. Account people will often have perspectives on what is being said that differs (sometimes substantially) from the client's perspectives. Ideally, the people behind the mirror are "partners" of the moderator, helping to gain maximum yield from the two hours of discussion that are allotted to most groups.

There is a rather low-tech method of communication that is used between observers and moderator. A series of notes may be carried into the conference room by the facility's hostess or by one of the observers, directing the moderator in one way or another. (Sometimes the moderator will "warn" respondents that this might happen in order to minimize the disruption.) These directions can take a number of forms, but they generally request the moderator to depart from the discussion guide, go back to the guide (if there has been a departure) or to "drill down" something that has been articulated.

Account people play a rather unique role in this process. They are actually intermediaries between the client and the moderator, representing both the agency's and the client's interests. While this can be a juggling act at times, it is rarely a problem. On the other hand, it is important for account people to respond to the client's questions about the research process and to provide additional feedback to the moderator regarding the client's reactions to the research.

Sometimes, the creative process begins right in the observation room, as comments made in the focus group stimulate ideas among clients and the account team. While this can be very exhilarating, one should always caution clients not to draw too many conclusions from any one focus group.

Here are a few "do's" and "don't"s of being an effective focus group observer.


  • Encourage your client to be candid about study objectives, product features and capabilities, production and/or launch schedules.
  • Inform the moderator if there are any "land mines" that might explode (e.g., a negative news story that just appeared about the company, its executives, or the product/service) so that he/she can try to avoid them or - at worst - acknowledge them and move the discussion forward.
  • Send a note to the moderator if you want to hear more from a particular respondent that will elaborate on or clarify a comment she/he has made.
  • Answer questions about product/service features and capabilities in order to avoid having the discussion stall because of irrelevancies.
  • Clarify any misconceptions about the product/service/company unless the objective is customer satisfaction, problem detection or image determination, in which cases you may want to hear such misconceptions and the reactions to them.
  • Suggest that the moderator "move on" if you have heard enough about a certain subject.
  • Provide feedback to the moderator in between sessions (most of the time, focus groups are conducted in pairs) in order to allow him/her to "drill down" certain issues that emerge as being critical, and skim over others that turn out to be non-essential.
  • If necessary, help modify positioning statements or tag lines in between groups, create new ones, or remove those that are getting uniformly negative reactions.


  • Turn on the light in the back room, as it will "blow" your cover. That becomes truly disruptive and distracting.
  • Speak in loud voices or laugh too loudly, as that can be heard by the group.
  • Send in notes every couple of minutes; if you feel the need to make major re-writes to the discussion guide, do it in between sessions. Most facilities can assist you in doing that.
  • Tell the moderator, "Jane isn't speaking;" she or he already knows that Jane is not contributing and notes like this reveal a lack of confidence in the moderator, which is also distracting. Allow the moderator to handle it in his/her own fashion. There may be a reason the moderator is not calling on Jane, but if it persists, raise it as an issue after the group.
  • Take over leading the discussion if you are demonstrating a product, unless this has been pre-arranged.
  • Surprise the moderator with new objectives, products, or story boards during a group; always discuss possible changes before the group begins.
  • Be too negative as this, too, reflects badly on the agency that hired the moderator. If you are unhappy with the moderator, try to offer positive suggestions and positive reinforcement so that the time and investment in the research are not wasted. (In the worst case, get a different moderator for the next session.)

Focus groups can actually be fun. Seeing and hearing "real" people talk about your product or service can be quite revealing and surprising. Consumers (including B2B consumers) can be helpful in generating ideas for products, promotions, etc. However, I will remind readers that generalizing on focus groups (even if you are doing six or more groups) can be dangerous as they do not usually comprise representative or projectable samples. Allowing groups to design a product or an advertisement can also be dangerous, though sometimes, they come up with a good idea.

Being a partner in this process will increase the value you receive from conducting the research.

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