The joy of moderating focus groups


People often ask what it is like to moderate a focus group. It’s hard to sum up, but like most things worth doing in life,
it is a combination of things that makes it attractive and keep me wanting to come back for more.

In qualitative research there are no boundaries. We start with a group of people and a discussion guide and off we go – anything is possible.

In some cases it allows me to be a curious child – asking the endless why questions, getting to the root of an issue. Moderation also allows me to be the teenage rebel – challenging the norm and questioning standards. Asking could the world be square and what would that mean for people. I also get to play – projective techniques, magazine tears, speech bubbles are all part of the tools of my job. In fact my toolkit could often be mistaken for the schoolbag of a junior infant.

Then there is the adult side. I have to make sure each voice is heard, that the group isn’t led by one individual, that the shy one in the corner is encouraged enough to speak up and give their opinion – even if it is not a popular one. It’s a discussion, but I have a range of topics to discuss and I’m on a time limit. I have to keep things moving on, but casually so.

We usually label or categorise respondents – for us they often tick the box of customers, users, older, younger, etc but the reality of a group reveals much more. They are recruited for one part of their lives but they bring their whole lives to the group – we see the full individual. For me there is huge benefit in this – seeing the whole person, their life experiences and opinions.

The variety of people, the experiences they have, and the interactions that take place are the reasons why qualitative research excites me as a researcher. We are indebted to the individuals who, night after night in venues all across the country, allow us into their worlds. These people open themselves up to our questioning and welcome our interest.

Of course there are some less appealing bits – working late, trekking across the country, hotel beds etc but overall the good outweighs the bad. It may be the sociologist in me, but in what other job would you get the opportunity to spend the time we do peering in the windows of so many lives? For me, this is the joy of moderating.