Getting ready to start a focus group project can be stressful. You probably have a huge list of data you need to collect, and not that many groups to do it in. If a line of questions doesn’t work, or an activity is a flop, you may not have time to make changes. One strategy that can help you make every group as useful as possible is to do a dry run.
When we’re getting ready to start a focus group project, we ask people office to act as test participants, bring them together in a room, and use the moderator’s guide to conduct a mock group. This gives us opportunity to test the questions, try out activities, and establish how long things will take. Afterwards, we ask our volunteer participants for any feedback on things they found confusing or awkward. Sometimes the client will observe the mock group, so they can see how things are working and indicate any changes they want.
Using fellow employees as participants is logistically easier than recruiting real participants, and it lets you focus on the process of the group and how well the moderator’s guide is working. You could recruit real participants for your dry run but, in our experience, once you have actual respondents all your attention is on the data they’re providing, not on how the group could be improved.
There are a number of challenges you may face when trying to conduct a dry run:
- Added time and cost. We try to schedule our dry runs after the moderator’s guide has been developed, but far enough before the start of groups that we will have time to make edits—on some short-term projects, this may not be possible. It can also sometimes be challenging to coordinate getting the moderator, 6-8 volunteers, the project staff, and the client all together at the same time. Building a dry run into the schedule from the beginning of the project can help make sure you have time for the mock group.
- Difficult to do with all populations. Unless you decide to recruit actual participants, your pool of volunteers is limited to the people who happen to be around. Those people might not be much like your actual participants, especially if your target participants have specific technical knowledge. In these cases, a dry run should focus on the logistics of conducting activities.
- It may be awkward. Going into the dry run, you should be aware that it may feel odd and unnatural. The moderator may know the participants, the participants may know each other, and the topics may not be relevant. I did a dry run once for a group that addressed career choices; my coworkers had to answer questions about job satisfaction while our boss observed, which was definitely awkward. But they played along, our boss made sure to say that he didn’t take their statements seriously, and we got valuable information on how to better structure that group. The best plan is to acknowledge and embrace the awkwardness, and remind everyone that the focus here is on the process, not on anyone’s actual answers.
Even if you do face some of these issues, the benefits of the dry run can be considerable:
Does every focus group project need a dry run? Probably not. If you’re discussing a topic you’ve addressed in focus group before, or using activities that have worked in the past, and if your moderator has lots of experience keeping groups moving, a dry run might not be worth the effort. But when you’re trying a new activity, discussing a new concept, or just when the number of groups you can conduct is limited enough that every second matters, a focus group dry run can help make sure that you get exactly the data you need.
- Practice working with complicated concepts. Often the point of using focus groups is to get detailed, beyond top-of-mind information about complicated, layered concepts. To do that, you need to ensure that your participants understand what they’re being asked about. One of our projects was focused on understanding what participants viewed as an “attractive lifestyle.” That phrase has significant meaning in the client’s organization and we all assumed it was self-explanatory, but our dry run made it clear that it was a stumbling block for participants. We were able to rephrase our questions and provide more explanations of what kinds of lifestyle information we were looking for, which led to better data for the client.
- Practice running activities. Using card sorts, mental mapping, small group work, and other activities in focus groups can be an important way to gather data. But the logistics of an activity can be challenging: dealing with materials, giving instructions, completing it in the time allowed. Practicing in a dry run helps you smooth out any kinks before dealing with actual participants.
- Experience for the moderator. If you’re working with a moderator who has done hundreds of groups and isn’t fazed by anything, great. But sometimes project needs require that groups are led by a staff member with somewhat less experience. When I first started moderating focus groups, dry runs helped me work out of some of my nervous energy and feel more comfortable sitting in front of the group and guiding the conversation.