Making Focus Groups More Objective

I would qualify myself as a quantitative researcher, i.e. I am more comfortable conducting research where hard data are collected so I can rely on my favourite statistical analyses to offer conclusions in which I have 95% of confidence.  However, as Pliner demonstrated for food (1982), my neophobic reaction towards qualitative research diminished with exposure to semi-quantitative techniques.

I do recognize that many intangible factors may influence consumer purchase behaviour, and those can be difficult to capture in a traditional survey. However, I have been skeptical about the value of focus groups since I attended one session where, hearing what he wanted to hear from a participant, an executive VP made his own conclusions in the back group and started to strategize the next steps. The discussion was still on!  Typical subjective assessment!

I am not the only one being skeptical. In their foundational textbook, Lawless and Heyman (1998) stated that in many industries, decisions are made often upon the managers’ intuition while observing the consumer ‘speak’ from the backroom of the focus group.

I changed my attitude when I was introduced to alternative qualitative methods that attempted to quantify somehow the “focus group” type discussion between research participants.  The objective of these techniques is to elicit product features that are important to consumers and therefore are often referred to product attribute elicitation methodology. Product prototype or commercial products are used as stimuli to facilitate the discussion.

The first one I experienced was called Product Attribute Elicitation Method (PAEM; Nash, 2003) and was a trademarked technique developed and commercialized by A.D. Little company (the inventor of the Flavor Profile in the 1950s). Like traditional focus groups, it requires the selection of 40-50 respondents representative of the targeted consumer group and hosted in small group sessions including 6-8 participants. Similarly, discussion should be led by a trained moderator who could stimulate the discussion, keep it on tracks without leading or sharing any personal opinions. Participants are compensated and sessions hosted in traditional focus group setting.

PAEM combines a qualitative approach (focus group discussion; vote) and a quantitative test (attribute rating by individual consumers). The 3-hour session follows six experimental steps and combines activities conducted individually and by the whole group.

  1. Individually, the proposed products are evaluated and rated for their overall liking on a 9-point hedonic scale. This is followed by open ended comments about likes and dislikes
  2. Group uses individual comments to elicit product attributes important to them
  3. Group sort product attributes into categories
  4. Group ranks the importance of each attribute categories in determining their liking for the product
  5. Group generate 7-point attribute scales with anchor descriptors for each attribute category
  6. Individually, participants reassess each product and rate the importance of each attribute category for each product

I have used this technique for a wine project where we were looking at consumer guidance for developing a new wine based product. Recently a graduate student at the University of Guelph applied the method to yogurts under my guidance.

What I like about PAEM:

  • The opportunity for respondents to sample 4 to 8 products, depending on the category.
  • The ability to clarify immediately attributes participants are using. Indeed, consumers can use generic terms or could use one term for another (example: fruity for sweet).
  • The group dynamic when sorting and ranking the attribute categories: a lot of insights are captured “qualitatively”
  • Of course the collection of hard data enabling statistical analysis of the data
  • The ability to provide product developers with actionable directions that were not intuitive but objective

What I don’t like about PAEM:

  • The long process to get to the final evaluation
  • The necessity to host many groups, but that’s the nature of group discussion techniques!

So I was very interested to hear about a somehow shorter version of PAEM at the recent meeting of the Society of Sensory Professionals.  This accelerated technique was developed at McCormick & Company and was labeled Focused Guidance Group (FGG).

A typical FGG session lasts only one hour and is therefore very structured. It starts by a 5-10 minute background/concept discussion, is followed by a quantitative product evaluation, and concludes with a 20-30 debrief. The process is similar to PAEM, with the exception that:

  • Consumers receive minimal instructions orally but have at their disposal written guidelines, which are reviewed in the waiting room prior entering the test room.
  • Only few products can be tasted at a time, up to 4
  • Time for discussion is more constrained and focuses only the elicitation aspect

The authors of FGG, Annette Hottenstein and colleagues, stated that the group discussion was ‘more engaging to watch’ than a classic taste test (or central location test).

Other attribute elicitation techniques are available to the consumer and marketing researchers for guiding new product development the fuzzy front end of the project (Van Kleef et al., 2005). I personally experienced the Repertory Grid Methodology (RGM, Kelly, 1955) and the free listing method (Hough et al. 2010).

What about you? Do you find traditional focus groups insightful for guiding new food/beverage development? Which technique would you recommend we shall explore for gaining time in the process without losing data quality? Your turn.


  • Hough, G., & Ferraris, D. (2010). Free listing: A method to gain initial insight of a food category. Food Quality and Preference, 21, 295-301.
  • Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
  • Lawless, H. T., & Heymann, H. (1998). Sensory Evaluation of Food. Principles and Practices. New York: Chapman & Hall.
  • Nash, M. (2003). Understanding consumer perception, attitudes, and choice for soymilk beverages. Paper presented at the 5th Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium, Oxford, UK.
  • Pliner, P. (1982). The Effects of Mere Exposure On Liking For Edible Substances. Appetite, 3(3), 283-290.
  • Society of Sensory Professionals:
  • van Kleef, E., van Trijp, H., & Luning, P. (2005). Consumer research in the early stages of new product development: a critical review of methods and techniques. Food Quality and Preference, 16, 181-201.

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