How to overcome the limitations of focus groups

07 Jul 2012 4min read

John Reynard

Managing Director, Creative Medical Research

Successful medical device developers understand that as well as being a regulatory necessity, market research is essential for testing the market appeal, safety and usability of their concepts and designs.

There are various market research techniques that are appropriate for each phase of device development and in this article we focus on the use of qualitative research, in the form of focus groups.

What makes a good focus group?

Focus groups are used to gather user requirements in the early stages of product design, and user evaluation of product features at the concept stage. Typically, seven to eight people is an optimum group size; any more and it’s difficult to get views from everybody. Also, it’s often useful to have groups in different parts of the country, region or world to cover purchasing habits and cultural differences.

A skilled, medically conversant moderator is crucial, together with a discussion guide. The aim of the guide is to highlight areas that need to be covered, but an experienced and confident moderator will allow the discussion to go where it is needed in order to explore ill-met and un-met customer needs. Often what a client company may think is important turns out not to be and other more essential considerations emerge.

Common focus group limitations

Some of the most common limitations of focus groups can include:

  • Dominant personalities: even with an experienced moderator, one or two people may dominate the group and sway the opinions of the others
  • Participant hesitancy: some people may not wish to publicly share their views on sensitive topics, but these can be important views that need to be included
  • Next steps challenges: can be difficult to show actionable data from a small number of focus groups where there were widely differing views
  • Lack of quantitative data: a purely qualitative methodology doesn’t satisfy the discerning eyes of stakeholders who want hard facts and figures on which to make key decisions

Overcoming the limitations of focus groups

The alternative is to conduct quantitative studies, conducting individual interviews with a larger number of people by telephone or face to face, but these are time consuming, costly and lack the creative input that comes from the group dynamic. As a response to this dilemma, CMR has developed the ‘integrated focus group’, which combines both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. In this scenario, respondents are presented with new designs, prototypes and concepts in one-to-one interviews. They answer a quantitative questionnaire on initial impact, without interacting with anyone else.

The participants are then brought together in a group discussion. The quantitative answers are quickly analysed and the results are presented to the group. In this way, the creative session begins from an unbiased starting point of knowing the views of everyone overall; discussion can then be used to dig deeper into the reasons for the responses and the session guided in such a way that the participants interact and develop the concepts further in line with true end user needs.

One consistent benefit of this type of focus group is that no one respondent dominates the group because all participants contribute equally, hence greater value is gained from each respondent, as well as their collective insight. Also, an independent and quantified assessment is made of the concepts on initial impact and, as the exercise is extended over different countries and user groups to give good coverage of the market, the total combined sample is statistically robust and helps underpin decisions.

The qualitative findings from the group give a depth of understanding to the quantitative data – why people think in the way they do – and because the group starts from an unbiased and more meaningful place the discussion can go straight to creating the ‘ideal’ concept. This combined quantitative and qualitative approach ensures a balanced assessment of the concepts and inspires future direction, identifying what else needs to be added or changed to ensure the ultimate success of the new product.

Join the conversation

Looking for industry insights? Click below to get our opinions and thoughts into the world of
medical devices and healthcare.