Focus Groups Don’t Lie, But They May Not Tell The Whole Story

Focus Groups Don’t Lie, But They May Not Tell The Whole Story

Understanding the Irrational Side of Decision-Making

Focus groups are a time honored method of gaining a deeper understanding of customer preferences and what drives buying decisions. One of the reasons that focus groups are a “time honored method” is that they work…to a point.

During a focus group, a good moderator prompts participants with a series of probing questions to gain an understanding of the customer’s perspective. In short, he/she asks rational questions to get rational responses. The problem is that the purchase decision process is not purely rational. It often includes a fair amount of irrational decisions. To tap into that “irrational” aspect, a moderator can add projective techniques into the focus group sessions. Projective techniques are designed to make it easier for respondents to tap into and articulate the more emotional aspects of their reasoning. Projective exercises can include:


Respondents are asked to cut words and images from magazines that capture what the brand/product/service means to them. They build a collage and the center of the collage represents the essence of the brand or product. They are asked to explain the significance of each word/image in the collage and it is the explanation that creates the insights.

Role playing

The group is divided into two – an imagined user group and non-user group. The user-group is charged with convincing the non-user group of the value of the brand/product/service. The language used to persuade can be very insightful.


Respondents are asked to think of the brand as a person with human characteristics. They are given a list of personality traits and asked to circle those that best describe their view of the brand.

These exercises allow focus group participants to tap into the emotional, “irrational” aspects of comparing and selecting products…providing a more complete picture of the customer’s purchase decision process.

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