White chairs in a circle

In Praise of Intimacy: Small Focus Groups

This is a “back room” musing on a methodological nuance that turns out to be surprisingly important.

Focus groups are the most common way to conduct qualitative research designed to gain insights on how people think about various topics. Industry estimates are that nearly 300,000 focus groups are conducted in the U.S. annually. One of the standard protocols for focus groups is the number of people who participate. The norm is to have a conversation with 8-10 people, which allows everyone to lob ideas in a low-risk environment. At Artemis Strategy Group we’re increasingly taking a different approach.

A room with nine white chairs in a circle

Take the groups we’re watching right now on a financial technology study. Our project is digging into the reasons why people resist an increasingly mainstream technology – electronic funds transfer. We’re using the Artemis Motivation Research line of questioning approach designed to help us dig into what motivates specific personal decisions. When we do this qualitative form of motivation research we design our sessions to make our respondents think in ways that they’re not used to. They need to look inside themselves. We make it hard for them to toss off superficial responses. One tool we use for this is a workbook that forces each participant to spell out their personal thought process.

To do this successfully we limit the size of our groups, sometimes to as few as three, never more than six respondents. This allows our moderator to give attention to each person, which has the added benefit of making each individual respondent’s answers meaningful.

The small size has one other critical impact: the intimacy of the setting and the tendency it has to make it easier for participants to open up about personal issues. Participants become supportive of one another, encouraging and building on each other’s comments at a level that’s simply not possible with a larger group. It’s like therapy. And that’s part of what makes Motivation Research such an effective approach.