Technology meets qualitative research
How collaboration technology is changing the face of focus group research.
Qualitative research can offer fascinating insights into attitudes and perceptions. The most commonly used and well-known qualitative research method is the focus group. Researchers use them as both a primary and complementary method of research. In business settings, focus groups are used to study consumer needs and preferences, to test new products ideas or to investigate customers’ beliefs, attitudes and perceptions about a current business, service or advertising campaign.
There are several reasons for the popularity of focus groups. First, the group interaction in focus groups has the potential to generate more than the sum of individual inputs. The researcher or moderator tries to create an environment that produces a free-flowing exchange in which participants openly share their perceptions. As participants interact, they become increasingly stimulated by each other’s ideas, helping them to develop new insights that they might not have been able to develop individually. This enables the researcher not only to learn or confirm the facts (as in quantitative research methods), but also the meaning behind the facts. This type of outcome demonstrates a major advantage of the focus group method: the production of insight.
However, group interaction also has distinct drawbacks. More than often there is not enough time for presenting individual ideas. A more dominant group member may hijack the discussion, whereas less outgoing members may be reluctant to express their ideas due to evaluation apprehension.
In order to overcome these problems inherent in focus groups, various collaboration tools, known as group support systems (GSS), have been designed which make use of computer technology within focus group sessions. A networked information system structures and supports group interaction by allowing participants to work in parallel and to see the contributions of others. Instead of a traditional face-to-face meeting where only one person can speak at a time, these systems enable parallel communication by allowing group members to simultaneously type their comments into a shared electronic workspace. A key feature in many GSS implementations is anonymity: it enables group members to express themselves freely and contribute ideas openly without the fear of embarrassment or disapproval. It also promotes objective evaluation of contributions based the idea itself and not its author. As a result, participants generate more and better ideas that have the true potential to constitute an ideal basis for better decisions.