Focus groups are called so because traditionally, the discussion of a focus group is focused on a particular topic. The discussions of the group and structured probing or exercises are designed to shed light on the topic under consideration.
A contrast but highly valuable tool to a focus group is the “Unfocus Group”. An Unfocus Group is a conversation with your representative sample again of 10 or fewer participants without an agenda, a discussion guide or the main topic. It is very difficult for business people to work without structure, a set objective or purpose. As working professionals we also strive to justify our efforts, every action must have a report associated with it and every penny spent must fetch a return. In an Unfocus Group, when we work without an objective, we can sometimes stumble upon much valuable insights than when we work within the confines of a structure.
This methodology can be used in various contexts, for example, if you have a semi-finished product and do not have a definite idea for how the finished product would shape up, you can conduct an Unfocus Group session to explore the possible manifestations of the half-baked idea. And consider perceptions of the target user as well as users outside your target segment.
Unfocus discussions usually rule out most obvious insights that a facilitator or moderator is likely to derive from a focused discussion. Another way of using an unfocused session is to test the potentialities and issues associated with a new product, service or idea, where the group hasn’t revealed the purpose of the product/idea. In this case, the individuals in the group use the product or direct the idea in ways they deem fit leading to insights into target user behavior or ways in which the product can be used which was initially not considered by the researcher.
Advantages of Unfocus Groups
01 Unanticipated discoveries
Researchers and businesses usually see the customer through the lens of their planned campaigns. Flipping the context allows a rare glimpse of customer expectations without limiting these expectations to just the product or service under consideration.
02 The customer is at the forefront
Flipping the context or looking outside the main subject of discussions moves the focus from the product or service to the customer. Therefore, Unfocus Group is relatively more customer-centric than other methods.
03 Minimum bias
As the objective of discussion is not clearly stated and defined, unfocused discussions introduce few to no biases into the mix.
04 Authentic and higher participation
Depending on the diversity of your focus group, the thoughts or opinions could be just as diverse. Again, as the objectives are not clearly defined, the participants openly share their thoughts and ideas. Unfocus in groups allows important issues often not directly tied to the project come into focus that may otherwise go unheard. This can help encourage conversation amongst participants who may otherwise not participate.
05 Participant Reflection
Unfocused conversations can lead to participants discovering a new idea or thought that they wouldn’t have been aware of or that have stayed subconscious for them. This reflection can further enable learning something new about themselves or a situation for the participants.
Disadvantages of Unfocus Groups
01 Difficult recruitment
Because the objectives are not clearly defined for the unfocused discussion, there could be a lot of confusion in defining the right candidates for participation, which would further complicate the participant recruitment process. Additionally, without knowing clear objectives for the group discussion, participant sign-ups would be difficult to achieve.
02 No insights
As is the case with any directionless discussion, Unfocus Groups can often go on for a very long time without yielding any meaningful insights for research.
03 Time-consuming and costly
An unfocused discussion conducted in an uncontrolled environment could be time-consuming and could escalate the cost of research.
04 Refocus/ Facilitator intervention
If the conversation goes out of hand, a facilitator intervention becomes imperative to bring the conversation back on track, which defeats the purpose or goes against the nature of unfocused group dynamic.
05 Participant Frustration
Without a set objective, participants may feel frustrated from not having experienced meeting group or individual goals during the discussions.
06 Unwarranted emotions
Not setting clear expectations before the unfocused discussion could instigate a lot of unwelcomed stress I the participants and lead to unwarranted emotions to surface during the discussion.
Think Design recommendation
Use Unfocus Groups as a method, in contrast, to focus groups when your objective is to discover order from chaos. Generally, in highly moderated and structured conversations, the outcomes are linear to objectives of the research. However, when the objective of the research is to arrive at, stumble upon or diversify ideas, Unfocus Group is your method of choice.
Imagine a boardroom scenario where the agenda is not clear and the participants are not moderated. One way of looking at this is, the possibility that it will lead to a chaotic non-conclusion. The other way of looking at this is, that you have a great chance of diversity of thoughts and that could be the seed for your billion dollar innovation.