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Remote focus groups: different methods to learn about

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For many years, researchers have been studying the use of modern means of communication (chat, telephone, video-conferencing, and so on) and for their influence on qualitative research and focus groups. The covid-19 health crisis is pushing us to rethink our working and research methods. In this article, you will find an overview of the different techniques for conducting focus groups remotely.

Summary

Introduction

There are different methods for conducting qualitative research. We advise you to read the article we have dedicated to the comparison between individual interviews and focus groups. This will enable you to choose the most suitable form for the qualitative phase of your research.
Several methods and means of communication have been tested and analysed by researchers since the emergence of ICTs (Information and communication technologies). After studying the published literature on the subject, different types of remote focus groups (synchronous and asynchronous) can be distinguished.

The various tests carried out and available in the documentation allow us to obtain an overview of these practices, the pros and cons of each of them, and to compare them to face-to-face focus groups. In the last part of this article, we will advise you on the method to be used according to your project and its degree of maturity.

 



A quick look back at the focus groups

Focus groups are particularly useful for comparing an analysis, a concept, a design, and so forth, with different consumer profiles. They allow your interlocutors to interact and thus feed a more in-depth discussion as the ideas and comments of others challenge them.
This type of interview aims in particular to confirm or refute the conclusions of your first research and the constructs you have developed.

However, focus groups can be challenging to carry out and are susceptible to bias. Organising them with consumers remains relatively easy, which is not the case when you wish to involve professionals, given their often-hectic agendas. Traditional focus groups also have a particular cost related to the transport of participants and the technologies to be implemented to ensure the proper capture of the audio or even video of the session.

For any focus group, a neutral and experienced moderator is a significant asset to ensure the good conduct of the focus groups and the validity of the results.
As far as the recruitment of participants is concerned, a minimum of 3 to 4 participants and a maximum of 7 to 8 is recommended, whether face-to-face or remote. It should be noted that for remote focus groups, many researchers advise recruiting beyond what is needed because they have experienced numerous last-minute cancellations. Many believe that the fact that the focus group is online reduces involvement and willingness to keep a commitment, which would explain the higher no-show rate.



Synchronous remote focus groups

As the name suggests, this remote focus group format remains synchronous and can take several forms depending on the tools and methods used. It is essential to begin by pointing out that researchers are unanimous on the importance to be given to the technique. This will involve choosing the communication channel that best suits the form of focus group you choose and providing clear instructions for use to participants (Hinkes, 2020). Several research studies stress the importance of ensuring the security of participants’ data. This has become even more important since the introduction of the GDPR.

Text-based focus groups

This remote focus group format is based on the use of written communication tools, mainly online chats. This ensures synchronicity between respondents’ interventions. This format is appreciated for its guarantee of the anonymity of respondents who use a pseudonym and avoids bias or influences linked to group membership.
As with all remote focus groups, the internet connection is a crucial point that can hinder the smooth running of the session. In addition to this, the participants’ ability to follow a conversation on a chat and to type on their keyboard (computer or telephone) is also essential for synchronous focus groups based on written communication. Indeed, as this ability is not the same for everyone, it can influence their participation (frequency of comments, quality of involvement…).
The different sources analysed, reveal that this type of remote focus group has a positive impact on the speed of the analysis: no transcription is required. However, some comments are defined as difficult to analyse because it is not always clear what they refer to (a participant’s statement? if so, which one? the question directly?).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

In general, the research published reveals that the results achieved are broadly similar between synchronous text-based distance focus groups and traditional face-to-face focus groups. However, several research studies point out that this method offers fewer verbatims: the participants’ contributions are systematically shorter via chats compared to a face-to-face focus group. It should also be noted that participants have the opportunity to expand their answers through online research, for example. The moderator has no perception of the degree of involvement of the participants.
The lack of non-verbal and para-verbal communication is repeatedly mentioned as disturbing, both in the moderation of the focus group and in the analysis of the contributions. Indeed, intonations, nods, glances, etc., are part of the elements of analysis and allow the moderator to know when to move on to the next question, for example.

Audio-based focus groups

Audio-based remote focus groups can take two forms: by telephone or via Skype-type software without the participants activating their cameras.
This form of remote focus groups is halfway between synchronous focus groups via chat and those via video-conferences. Indeed, they ensure anonymity and the absence of bias in terms of social barriers.
This remote focus group format does not allow any analysis or consideration of the non-verbal communication of the participants (posture, gestures, etc.). Still, it can be the subject of an analysis of the para-verbal communication (intonation, rhythm, etc.) which proves to be an essential point of contact.
The degree of involvement of the participants is also a crucial point here as it cannot be defined or measured. In some cases, the moderator had the possibility of being able to send a message to a particular participant during the session which, in the case described, proved to be useful in getting the participant to express himself or herself.
Although audio-based remote focus groups do not offer the simplicity of transcribing the chats, they once again make it possible to keep the participants completely anonymous. This is a considerable advantage when confronting opinions from very different profiles that would have potentially suffered from bias if the session had been face-to-face.
Telephone interviews and focus groups can be an alternative of choice for reaching populations that are less comfortable with ICTs or do not have access to them
, such as the elderly, for example.

Video-based focus groups

Remote focus groups via video-conferencing are the closest to traditional face-to-face focus groups. Indeed, the presence of video allows para-verbal but also non-verbal elements to be analysed and taken into account (body and head movements, facial expressions, etc.). It should be noted, however, that a part remains invisible to the moderator.
The majority of software allowing this type of interaction has a tool enabling to record both the audio and video of the exchange and to analyse these data as well. On the other hand, the presence of the video cancels out the advantages mentioned above linked to the anonymity of the participants.



Asynchronous remote focus groups

This type of focus group is also based on written communication, this time asynchronously. This reduces the need for participants to be skilled with their keyboard (computer or telephone), without negating the need for them to be comfortable with the technology used.

Stewart et al. (2016) point out that responses are often longer and more elaborate than with synchronous methods since respondents have time to construct and develop their answers. It should be noted; however, that written exchanges sometimes lack information on the context and the state of mind of the participants.

This format means that the discussion takes place over a more extended period, given the waiting times between the different interventions.



Advantages and disadvantages of the different methods

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Face-to-face focus groups Group dynamics

Cost

Difficulty in bringing participants together (distance, busy agendas)

Slow processes (recruitment, discussion, analysis)

Remote focus groups

Difficulty in bringing participants together (distance, busy agendas)

Slow processes (recruitment, discussion, analysis)

No transport (convenience)

Cost reduction

An environment known by the participants

Possibility of involving particular profiles that are difficult to reach or geographically dispersed

Internet connection required

Participants’ skills in using the chosen software/site/tool

Derived attention

No assurance of the participant’s identity

Level of involvement of the participant

Synchronous remote focus groups (text)

Anonymity

Simplified discussion of sensitive topics

Automatic transcription (export of the discussion)

Keyboard typing skills

Absence of non-verbal and para-verbal communication

Loss of contextual information

Difficulties of expression (spoken language)

Synchronous remote focus groups (audio)

Simplified discussion of sensitive topics

Registration is simplified and free of charge

Lack of non-verbal communication

Loss of information if several participants speak at the same time

Difficulties of expression (spoken language)

Synchronous remote focus groups (video)

Analysis of verbal, non-verbal and para-verbal communication

Registration is simplified and free of charge

No anonymity

Loss of information if several participants speak at the same time

Difficulties of expression (spoken language)

Asynchronous remote focus groups (text)

Anonymity

Construction of answers

Automatic transcription (export of the discussion)

No time limits

Prolonged deliberation

No assurance of the participant’s identity

Absence of non-verbal and para-verbal communication

Loss of contextual information

Longer time frame

Choosing the right method

Of course, face-to-face focus groups will be preferable for groups and profiles without an internet connection. Öz (2016) depicts online focus groups as revealing less detailed information about the opinions, feelings and views of the participants compared to face-to-face focus groups. However, the research confirms the reduction of social barriers via remote focus groups.

So, when you want to reach geographically dispersed populations, people for whom travel is complicated or who are difficult to reach, use remote focus groups. This will also allow you to reduce research costs.
Remote focus groups via written communication ensure the maximum level of anonymity and make it possible to create very heterogeneous focus groups. They can be fascinating to set up to confront the opinions of significantly different profiles, but also for discussions on sensitive subjects.

Stewart et al. (2016) also analyse an option that we have not previously discussed: the use of virtual worlds as a support for the focus group. However, this option requires knowledge and ease of use of this type of software so that it does not negatively influence the research (focus on the use of the platform rather than on the discussion).

It is important to note that remote focus groups make product testing difficult since respondents cannot touch and view the products. However, it is possible to use certain stimuli: videos, presentations, images, etc. to help participants visualise specific points or design elements, for example.

In the research conducted by Matthews et al. (2018), researchers and participants agree that personal involvement in the discussion is more vital face-to-face than online. Moreover, interactions were defined as more enriching via audio and video methods than written methods.

The dominance of the discussion by some participants is a recurring point that needs to be addressed. Face-to-face focus groups traditionally involve participants taking turns to speak. However, remote focus groups make this process more complicated. Written discussions may be dominated by those who type faster or by the larger voices in audio and video focus groups.

Sources

Illustrations : Shutterstock

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