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Do you attend the focus groups? I can watch the focus groups if I choose to because they are done in a special place with a two way mirror. But I don’t tend to do that because it makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like watching people like that, I’d rather use an experienced moderator to tell me.

I love to know what the target audience are thinking about. I like to get inside their heads, but I also like to maintain a certain distance from them because, in a sense, I need to think about them as a job. You can’t get too closely engaged with them.

I will often send members of the research team who have never seen a focus group or because it’s the only way that they will ever see the target audience.

Do you listen to a transcript? All the focus groups are recorded so if I wanted to go back and read all the transcripts I could do that but I don’t insist on them.

Instead, I have an experienced moderator who writes a report after the focus groups. Her report is long, about 25 to 30 pages, and full of quotes. So it might say that the people feel miserable, quote: “I feel like a bag of potatoes”.

I usually speak to the moderator on the eve after she’s done a focus group. I will find out how it’s gone, what were the major issues. I mull it over, maybe probe her a bit asking for her to tell me more about this or that. Sometimes I’ll ask her to go back and do more focus groups if I’m not happy with the results.

How do you tell a good focus group from a bad one? A bad focus group can lead you right up the garden path but with a good focus group you can read the report through and first of all you can see whether the results are plausible and if they are useful. In that first phase you’re looking for a way of engaging with the target audience. You can say to yourself, if I fed this back to the target audience would they say, ‘That’s me to a tee, that’s how I feel about the world’?

Good focus groups are great. In the one I am doing just now, the target audience said “In an ideal world if someone was going to sort us out it would be Fern Britton or Lorraine Kelly” and that was an absolute golden nugget for me because that is a metaphor for what they want. Essentially they are telling me the personality of the intervention and that’s what comes out of a really good focus group – a metaphor. Of course, they don’t know it’s a metaphor, what they are saying is this is the sort of intervention that would engage them, the sort of personality. Those two names are all I needed from that focus group because I now know what sort of identity the intervention has to have or that the front line staff must become much more like that. That’s worth its weight in gold. Critics might laugh and say that’s just two names off the top of their heads and we couldn’t possibly get Lorraine Kelly but they’d be missing the point, it’s a metaphor.

A good focus group just hits you in the eye, it will tell you what the real intervention is, put it right into your hand. I saw a report the other day and I said, ‘there you are, you’ve got three quarters of your intervention there. It’s just a question of unpicking it all because you have so much there about how you might engage the population.’

Can anyone do this work? You have to be a people person. You have to be curious and inventive. If you want to do something you’ve always done, you wouldn’t want to do this. This is about doing new stuff. Also, you need to understand metaphor, use metaphor and appreciate why others use metaphors too.

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