Next is Susan Fader in our Moderators’ Voice Series! She joins Zoe Dowling for a chat on Focus Groups.
Susan Fader, Insight Navigator, Qualitative Researcher, Moderator & Strategist
Zoe Dowling, Lead Research Strategist, Focus Vision
What happens when two qualitative veterans sit down and talk shop? The room suddenly becomes a perfect fly-on-the-wall venue for other researchers to learn a thing or two about their craft. FocusVision’s Zoe Dowling recently met with research pro and moderator sage, Susan Fader to discuss thoughts, trends and advice regarding qualitative research. Rest your wings and check out what they had to say…
Zoe: Let’s start at the beginning. Your career began in consumer packaged goods with General Foods, and then you moved into advertising, worked overseas and eventually focused consultancy work. That’s quite a well-rounded background! How do you feel your background feeds into your approach to qualitative research and moderating?
Susan: The fact that I’ve been on so many sides is very helpful. I’ve been the client who has both commissioned and had to use the research. I’ve also been on the advertising agency side, where sometimes you’re involved in the research and sometimes you were just given the research results. I’ve been an account exec who had to interact with creatives and get their buy-in to whatever strategies the clients were getting out of research. I’ve also worked in startups. So I’ve seen all the different sides, been in all of the different seats, and worn many hats!
All of this has helped me to truly understand how research is used. Even by people whom I may never meet or whose names may never come up during the entire research process. I understand how research might impact them. It’s not just about understanding the primary research objectives and getting the related answers; it’s about understanding how it all might be used two or three steps down the line. That’s important.
It’s not just about understanding the primary research objectives and getting the related answers; it’s about understanding how it all might be used two or three steps down the line.
Zoe: What is the key strength of in-person qualitative research, from your perspective?
Susan: The strength and the beauty of qualitative research is that it allows us to have real conversations with people. You can have a directed conversation, where you guide people to talk about issues that you prescribe. You can also have open conversations, which you let the other person take the lead. In these cases, things come up that you might not have even thought of.
Qualitative is this unique animal that can adapt to whatever you need it to be. It’s not a rigid program. It goes back to being able to have a conversation and the ability to really listen. Based on where the conversation goes, you are lead to many interesting places.
The in-person element encompasses all the things you use in the conversation. It’s the interactive process involving language, smell, sight and body movement all together.
Zoe: In that sense, in-person qualitative can really offer up some unique insights!
Susan: Right. When you do have in-person interactions, things will happen. For example, I once did a research study for an implantable contraceptive, and the client was concerned that their messaging was not working. So the research study was designed to explore new messaging.
We held conversations with doctors, asking them about prescribing this implant. During the interviews, I noticed that they kept touching their legs or their buttocks when they talked about the implant. I asked why. We discovered that many of the doctors were implanting the contraceptive incorrectly. It was supposed to be implanted in the arm, and they were implanting it in the buttocks. The problem turned out not to be messaging-related, but a treatment issue.
Zoe: That’s very revealing….and a little scary! Moving on, what are some advantages of choosing focus groups over IDIs?
Susan: Groups are really good because if you set them up right, you can let the participants converse with each other. This often allows you, as moderator, to step back and not even ask a question. Those are the best scenarios; you get a vibrant conversation where people are probing, sharing and trying to understand each other’s points of view. In those cases, even careful observation can provide great insight.
It’s not just about the moderator leading the conversation. Sometimes you have to know when to step back and let the people who are there have the conversation. This skill isn’t recognized enough. It’s about knowing when to ask and knowing when to be silent to let others speak. It’s about knowing when to follow the guide and when to go off-guide to let things happen more naturally. You can then circle back at the end just to make sure everything was covered.
Zoe: What other skills or techniques have you found useful for focus groups?
Susan: I believe as moderator, the conversation doesn’t begin when you start the focus group. It begins when you start recruiting and asking questions. During the pre-work, you might also ask people to do specific things before coming to the session.
I’ve applied elements from gamification theory into my recruiting screeners and pre-work, and even conversations I have with people in the waiting room. Gamification is a mindset that incorporates “Why do people like playing games? What engages them? What makes them comfortable? What gets them excited?” Thinking about this allows you to cover so much more when you’re actually in the discussion.
Zoe: What about technology and research? Where does it fit?
Susan: In order to successfully integrate technology into qualitative research you have to step back and think about what you are doing and what you expect as a result. How can technology make the process better? That was part of what led me to start integrating technology, such as artificial intelligence application in pre-work assignments and thinking about how to gamify qualitative research.
In order to successfully integrate technology into qualitative research you have to step back and think about what you are doing and what you expect as a result.
But here’s an important point. Even if you start integrating technology and changing approaches, there’s still a place for that old-fashioned “straightforward, non-gimmicky” qualitative research. The objective and type of project will ultimately determine whether or not it makes sense to integrate technology or gamification. You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach. Don’t force it…if it will enhance a project, then do it.
Zoe: Yes, it’s important to choose the tools most applicable to a given moment. You recently tested our new FV360 Live technology. How did that go?
Susan: I honestly think the FV360 camera has changed the whole paradigm related to video streaming and video recording. With the FV360 camera, I get never-before-seen engagement from remote-viewing clients.
My first experience with the FV360 camera was a three-day project. Each day, the number of clients dialing-in increased dramatically. Their engagement during the chat sessions was like nothing I’d seen before. With that closeness to the participants, they felt like they were in the room with me.
When using the FV360 camera, I’ve really found that clients are highly engaged and in the moment. They listen more intently. They ask for additional probes or provide additional stimuli, which they might not have thought of in a traditional viewing scenario.
The FV360 camera is so easy to watch…it just pulls you in. You feel connected to the person who is speaking. You see them; you see what’s going on. If you are going to use video, it really is the most engaging and effective way to go.
The FV360 camera is so easy to watch…it just pulls you in. You feel connected to the person who is speaking.
Zoe: Looking back over all the experiences you’ve had, and the countless number of groups you’ve moderated, what advice would you give to somebody who is starting out?
Susan: I think you have to be a strategist. You must have that analytical skill. You’ve got to think on your feet. It’s not just about asking questions and going through a guide. You have to remember what someone said 20 minutes ago, or things that don’t make sense, and then be able to analyze on the fly.
I also think that you have to be aware of all that’s happening throughout the world of market research. What’s happening in quantitative, how quantitative is being used with qualitative. It’s also important to understand the technological aspects of qualitative research, even if it’s not necessarily something you’re working on at the moment. Sooner or later, everything gets integrated. Think ahead in all instances and you’ll be ready for whatever may come!
About Susan Fader, Fader & Associates
Susan is an expert strategist, qualitative researcher and moderator who has worked across categories and demographics in the U.S. and more than 20 countries on five different continents. In a prior life, Susan was a product manager at General Foods, account supervisor at Interpublic and a marketing consultant in Tokyo. She has presented at numerous Innovation, Marketing and Research conferences, and been quoted in multiple publication on topics ranging from qualitative research, gamification mindset, self-diagnostic ethnography, storytelling and multi-sensory disrupters. Susan has an MBA from Columbia and enjoys challenges and recently completed cycling on a tandem from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. and a polar plunge in Antarctica. Follow her on LinkedIn.