Focus group interview example: Creating the right environment for participants to share

Sep 11, 2023

By Clareana Santanna Suarez

Conducting qualitative research requires fostering an environment where sharing is easy. Respondents must feel safe – a well-known reality to any qualitative researcher out there. Yet, creating such a safe space is easier said than done. But, let me share a focus group interview example that works and helps us create a better environment for participants.  

And yes, it must be beyond cash incentives that respondents received to take their place in a focus group and "respond". After all, cash is a very tangible reward. But this isn't always true. Financial incentives can effectively compel someone to take part in research; emotionally showing up is a whole different story.

No judgment. It is not the participant's fault. They don't just decide to cross arms and embody the personality of a snake plant. Research shows most adults fear "saying the wrong thing". They fear being judged by their opinions, thoughts, and feelings.  

In fact, cancel culture, which initially targeted celebrities, has made its way to our social circles and workplace. Cancelling someone is supposed to serve as a teaching moment, informing by example what behaviors should be avoided. But it also plays a role in making some people hyper-aware of what they say and do. They tend to think twice before sharing anything publicly, from political opinions to everyday decisions.  

Read next: The role of empathy in research

Creating trust for better insights

A quick look on Reddit made me realize that consumers feel judged by how they buy, too: Do they buy organic, local, healthy, or sustainable? Do they spend too much or too little? And the list goes on. It is the role of the researcher to break through and promptly bond with the respondent, so they answer questions truthfully and enthusiastically. The good news is that sharing information between trusted individuals releases oxytocin, or the "love hormone," which makes us feel warm and fuzzy.  

Building trust with respondents becomes paramount because it provides the emotional reward that enables a meaningful conversation. And where else do people get the chance to be completely honest and be rewarded for it?  

During our many years of fieldwork, we have seen respondents being completely cooperative and even delighted to share their opinion uninterrupted - that is the difference it makes to listen genuinely.  

One example comes to mind. Isabelle Landreville, the chief Insights Seeker and lead moderator here at Sylvestre & Co. was having an in-depth conversation about the challenges of fighting breast cancer while I took notes.  

By the end of the interview, this participant said something that stuck with me: "I think this research made me go back and think about all I've been through, and even appreciate my partner more for all he has done". She later told us how difficult it was to speak about cancer in any other space.  

Focus group interview example: Don't miss these insights

While a simple question-and-answer approach might get you some solutions, it does limit the quality of insights. Yes, qualitative research can help you go beyond the surface, but a researcher and moderator versed in creating a safe space can take you to a beyond you didn't even know existed. And the truth is, we only know what we were missing out on once we get it.