In Qualitative Research, Size Does Matter!

Focus Groups, Market Research, Qualitative Research


In qualitative research, variety is the spice of life. Moderators are particularly sensitive to the number of participants in their groups. Some firmly believe that twelve is the right number. Others are more comfortable with eight. The reasons for these preferences include:

  • CONTROLLING THE GROUP. Each moderator has their own style and way of handling group interaction. Every group has their chatterboxes, the shy ones, the negative ones, and the ones who try to take over the group for their own purposes. Each moderator knows best what works for them in maintaining a productive environment in the focus group room.
  • MINIMIZING “GROUP-SPEAK”. Focus groups are frequently criticized for the phenomenon known as group-speak. Basically, group-speak happens when there is a strong participant, and the other participants simply go along with what that person is saying, rather than expressing their own opinion. A good moderator overcomes group-speak by building rapport quickly, continually monitoring the room, expertly reading body language and encouraging dissident opinions. Another way to minimize group-speak is to reduce the number of participants. It’s easier to hide in a crowd!
  • HEARING ALL THE VOICES. Your moderator’s goal is to hear honest and frank opinions from every group member to strengthen the insights that result. The number of participants in the group is a key part of this equation for the moderator and – again! – every moderator knows what works best for them. Forcing a moderator to include more participants than they are comfortable with so you “get your money’s worth” is only going to result in less or poorer quality information.

Often, focus groups are not the only answer to a qualitative question, although they are very popular. You need to consider your research objectives, and at the heart of it, the type of discussion and behavior you want to understand. In qualitative research, there
are other alternatives to the traditional focus group that you should keep in mind:

  • IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWS (IDIs): In person one-on-one interviews conducted at a
    focus group facility give you the chance to focus on the individual, avoiding the
    distractions of the other focus group members. After all, if it is just the moderator
    and the respondent, there is nowhere to hide! In-depth interviews are excellent for
    very sensitive or personal topics, as well as topics that typically involve individual
    assessment and decision making. Additionally, in-depth interviews are often used
    in business-to-business research where respondents may not be easily scheduled
    into a group, or there may be concerns about speaking openly in front of their
  • DYADS AND TRIADS: Two or three people are recruited to participate in discussions at a focus group facility. Dyads and Triads are often used where the decision making process for a particular product or service is shared, such as in the case of spouses or parent-child decision making. Dyads and Triads avoid most of the weaknesses of focus groups while showcasing the interaction between the parties evaluating the topic or making the decision.
  • MINI-GROUPS: Typically defined as groups with four to six participants, minigroups
    fill the gap between triads and full focus groups. Mini-groups are often used
    when the qualified participant is very rare or unique, and recruiting costs become
    prohibitive. Additionally, participants in mini-groups may feel more secure about
    offering different or dissenting opinions because there are fewer participants.

Your focus group facility should have a variety of settings to accommodate groups of all sizes in comfort and in an environment that promotes vigorous and creative discussion. The key question in deciding what size group to use is, “What are you trying to learn?” Consider your research objectives, think about how your target audience behaves, and then listen to your moderator, who will have the experience and expertise to guide the research design to meet your project needs.