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If you’ve ever observed focus groups (or watched enough TV), you’re familiar with the one-way mirror design. Here’s how focus group facilities traditionally look:

  • A large conference room, with a big rectangular table.
  • A giant one-way glass mirror covering one wall.
  • The clients (or stakeholders) sit behind the glass and observe what people say.

Now, you could interchange this same scene and drop in a detective or police interviewing someone being investigated, and the setting would be the exact same backdrop (maybe with a smaller table).

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Having a giant mirror, where clients sit (unseen), watching is, well, uncomfortable. There’s no way around it. It’s not a natural setting for a group discussion. The whole scene screams “You’re being watched.”

The effect of observation on behavior

A funny thing happens when people know they’re being watched. Their behavior changes. (This is called Reactivity in Psychology.) And why should this concern those who are attempting to gather the research? Well, quite simply, because we want to understand how people respond and think when they’re relaxed and comfortable; when they’re not self-conscious.

Now, granted, some people can sit looking at a giant one-way mirror and not feel any different, but, as a moderator, I visibly see people relax when I tell them there is no one behind that mirror. We have a strict policy that clients are not allowed to sit behind the mirror observing.

But what about cameras?

Most of the focus groups and in-person interviews we do are recorded. We clearly explain to participants that they are being recorded so we don’t have to sit there taking notes the whole time, and though this may, too, slightly change their behavior, it’s a much-less conspicuous reminder that they’re being watched. And noted. And observed.

If people object to the video recording, we’re happy to oblige and stick with audio so that we can produce transcripts. And if we ever feel that cameras are going to markedly influence the research process, we don’t have them present.

Why does this all matter?

At InterQ, we are psychologists as much as we are marketers and researchers. We’re seeking to have candid, open, honest discussions with people who fall into our clients’ demographics, and it’s our goal to have people enjoy these conversations, be completely honest, and let us into their worlds as much as possible. If they feel they are being interrogated, it changes the mood, and, correspondingly, they act differently. They often say what they think they’re supposed to say, instead of how they truly feel.

And that corrupts our research process.

So what’s the alternative to the one-way mirror?

We have nothing against focus group facilities; we work with them frequently, and they’re a vital part of our industry. However, whenever possible, we host groups at our office, in casual co-working spaces, or in the comfort of people’s homes or work settings (using mobile and in-person ethnographies). We believe in less “research groups” and more in “let’s have a conversation and get to know you.”

If you were a participant, which setting would you rather be in? That’s the criteria we use, every time.

Interested in focus groups? Request a proposal today >

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