Companies that are new to product development and organizational strategy are often apt to ask what a focus group facilitator really is. In a few words, a focus group facilitator is a qualitative market research specialist.
Focus group facilitators (or moderators, rather) specialize in administering qualitative research: information that is not readily available in terms of numbers, hard data, or reproducible results. Focus group facilitators conduct qualitative research to access the hidden and underlying behaviors, thoughts, emotions, feelings, desires, etc.that manifest themselves into real-world outcomes. Having an in depth understanding of the qualitative bits of information that affect a business and its market position is key to developing competitive advantage.
Focus group facilitators are called upon to handle ill-structured problems where there is no clear-cut method for doing so. In most cases the problems that focus group moderators must deal with are like projects. They have never been approached before and there is very little precedent. The method by which problems and questions are handled with a less-guided, flexible approach. There is no fast formula for success.
Focus group facilitators or moderators conduct focus groups for a variety of purposes. From market research, to business strategy to brand and product development, these qualitative research specialists are often used for creative problem solving, where answers are hidden from objective grounds. The moderator takes into account the underlying thoughts and emotions, perceptions, experiences and belief systems involved with subjective awareness of the participants who resemble a particular consumer or "imagined" audience.
In designing a focus group session, focus group moderators and facilitators wrestle with two problems: subject matter problems and rhetorical problems. Subject matter problems pertain to what is questioned or what information the focus group is intended to find. The task of the moderator is to find the real problem (as opposed to the perceived problem) to be addressed. Often times the company that hires the moderator believes the problem is x when it is really y. Finding the real problem depends on the ability and skill of the moderator of the focus group session.
Rhetorical problems are where the skill of the focus group facilitator comes into play. Not all facilitators do this equally well. Rhetorical problems prompt the facilitator to address how the question is asked and what presentation style to which the audience will best respond. There is little replacement for experience and expertise in this capacity. That is where the focus group facilitator plays a central role.
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