The Art of Skillful Questioning in Focus Groups: 12 Tips for Successful Discovery

Updated on
May 3, 2024

By Nate Fleming

Focus groups are one of the most powerful tools in our marketing research arsenal, offering rich, qualitative data that can uncover insights that lead to better solutions for our clients. The success of a focus group, however, largely hinges on the skill of the moderator—particularly their ability to ask the right questions in the right way. And, perhaps most importantly, being clear on what exactly it is we hope to learn beforehand.

We Know What We're Looking For

We start by figuring out exactly what we want to find out. Are we trying to figure out what our client’s customers are into? What's buzzing in the market? How to make an app or website cooler? We pin that down first, so we don't end up going in circles.

Example:

Objective: "To explore coffee drinkers' daily habits and preferences in order to identify desired features and potential pain points with current coffee shop apps that our new app could address and improve upon."

Start Broad, Then Narrow Down

The funnel approach is our best friend. We begin with broad questions that allow participants to warm up and start thinking about the topic. Then, we gradually narrow our focus to more specific areas. This technique not only makes participants more comfortable but also allows us to explore general opinions before delving into detailed feedback.

Example:

  • Broad question: "What are the first thoughts that come to mind when you think about online shopping?"
  • Narrow question: "How do you decide which products to trust when you're shopping on an online platform?”

Open-Ended is the Golden Rule

Skillful questioning is about encouraging discussion, not restricting it. Open-ended questions require more than a yes or no answer and prompt participants to share thoughts, feelings, and reasons. Questions like "What are your thoughts on…" or "How do you feel about…" open the floor to diverse opinions and rich data.

Example:

  • Closed question: "Do you use our app every day?"
  • Open-ended question: "Can you walk us through how you typically use our app in your daily routine?”

Follow the Flow but Guide the River

We aim to stay flexible and follow interesting threads of conversation as they emerge, but remember our role as a moderator is to guide the discussion. This means steering conversations back on topic when they meander too far off course and ensuring all questions on our list are addressed in the time available.

Example:

  • Participant’s comment: "I like the app's interface, it reminds me of playing a game."
  • Guiding question: "That’s interesting, can you elaborate on what aspects of the app give you that gaming experience? And how does this affect your overall usage of the app?"

Avoid Leading the Witness

Our questions are unbiased and open. Leading questions suggest a particular answer. For instance, instead of asking, "How much do you love the new flavor?" which assumes they like it, we ask, "What do you think about the new flavor?" It’s crucial to avoid influencing participants’ responses with our wording.

Example:

  • Leading question: "How impressive did you find our customer service response time?"
  • Unbiased question: "What has been your experience with our customer service's response time?"

Layer Your Questions

Not all participants will be forthcoming right away. Layered questions can help draw out more detailed responses. If a participant gives a brief answer, we follow up with a request for elaboration, such as "Can you tell me more about that?" or "What makes you feel that way?"

Example:

  • Initial answer: "I found the signup process to be quick."
  • Layered question: "Can you describe which parts of the process felt particularly speedy, and why that was beneficial to you?"

Use Probing Techniques

Sometimes participants need a nudge to reveal more depth in their answers. Probing techniques like silent pauses, reflecting back what we heard, or asking for clarification encourage participants to expand on their thoughts. Silence can be particularly powerful; people often rush to fill it, usually with more detailed information.

Example:

  • Initial answer: "I think the price is too high."
  • Probing follow-up: "What makes you say the price is too high? Are there specific features or services you expected at that price point?”

Embrace the "Why"

"Why" is a potent word in focus groups. It gets to the heart of participants’ thoughts and feelings. Whenever an opinion is offered, we follow up with "Why do you think that is?" or "Why did you feel that way?" Understanding the reasons behind opinions is often more valuable than the opinions themselves.

Example:

  • Statement: "I prefer the older version of the product."
  • Follow-up question: "Why do you prefer the older version? What specific features or attributes does it have that you value?”

Watch Your Language

The language we use should be easily understood by all participants. We make sure to avoid jargon, technical terms, or overly complex language that might confuse or alienate participants. This helps ensure that our questions are clear, concise, and to the point.

Example:

  • Jargon-filled question: "What is your opinion on the UX of our platform?"
  • Clear question: "How do you feel about your experience on our platform?"

Manage Group Dynamics

During discussions, we pay attention to whether dominant voices are overshadowing quieter participants. We encourage quieter members to speak up with direct, but gentle prompts like, "Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet," or by asking them directly for their opinion.

Example:

  • Direct prompt: "James, we haven't heard from you yet. What are your thoughts on the topics we've been discussing?"
  • Encouraging quieter participants: "I noticed a few of you nodding when that point was raised. Would anyone like to add to that?”

Close Gracefully

We end with questions that allow participants to add anything they feel was not covered. This not only ensures we haven’t missed anything important but also gives participants a chance to reflect on the session. A question like "Is there anything else you’d like to add?" can reveal unexpected insights.

Example:

  • Closing question: "Before we wrap up, I want to make sure everyone has had a chance to share their thoughts. Is there anything else regarding our discussion that you’d like to add or any topic you feel we’ve overlooked?"

Look for the Nuggets

After we've collected all the responses, we don't just call it a day. Instead, we dig through them to find the patterns or surprises. Turning that raw info into gold nuggets of knowledge helps us identify ways to meet our objectives with the utmost consideration for the needs of the audience our work seeks to inspire.

The art of questioning in focus groups is a multifaceted process that plays a crucial role in gathering meaningful, actionable data. This meticulous approach to questioning not only enhances our understanding of audience preferences and experiences, but also helps us create innovative, targeted solutions that inspire and motivate.

BONUS: Check out this post for some tips on how to find the nuggets in your raw focus group data.

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