Evidence-Based Innovation Blog

When Should Business Schools Engage Focus Groups or In-Depth Interviews?

Posted on May 15, 2012 9:00:00 AM

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qualitative research inside headsHave you ever wished you could get inside the heads of people in your target audience?  To hear what words people use to describe their perceptions of your brand?  To see patterns in how people assess your value proposition?  To learn how your offerings bring meaning to their lives?

Qualitative research methods can help business schools learn how to “walk in the shoes” of your constituents.  This article describes two specific qualitative research methods: focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs).  Both methods can satisfy institution-critical questions when you need to:

  • Put human faces to business questions;
  • Explore respondents’ points of views, experiences, and feelings in depth;
  • Have participants explain in their own words what matters to them and why;
  • Learn people’s ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ when evaluating brands or deciding on products;
  • Uncover first impressions, top-of-mind responses, or other spontaneous reactions; and
  • Probe for in-depth explanations or real-life stories supporting quantitative data.

Focus groups and IDIs capture responses to questions that may be difficult to pose in a quantitative survey.  With open-ended questions and a conversational atmosphere, participants freely expound on complex decision-making processes, customer satisfaction, and deep-seated feelings or beliefs they associate with brands.

Though qualitative work often stands alone in helping understand people’s thinking, experiences, beliefs, feelings, and expectations, researchers often pair qualitative methods with quantitative.  Implemented either before or after a quantitative survey, qualitative methods collect information that shapes survey questionnaires, lends anecdotal evidence to corroborate survey data, or provides explanatory depth to standardized questions.  Depending on our objectives, we might conduct interviews over the phone or face-to-face; likewise, we might consider online focus groups versus in-person sessions.

With well-trained, highly skilled moderators and interviewers, business schools can gather information to guide design of products or messaging that resonates in the minds and hearts of people in your audience.  In fact, research participants often find it flattering or even cathartic to express opinions, feelings, and life experiences to an interested, engaged listener. 

Please contact us for advice on when focus groups or IDIs might most effective for effective in gaining insight on your audience.

What is qualitative research?  

Qualitative research methods use inductive reasoning to take responses from a small number of participants to understand people’s beliefs, feelings, needs, and expectations in detail.  Based on real people’s experiences, qualitative methods help us understand the hearts and minds of our stakeholders.

When do we use qualitative research?    

Whenever we need to learn how stakeholders think about things in their own words; to understand how our brand, service, or product fits in the context of people’s lives; to understand how our target audience members use our products/services or think about our brands on a day-to-day basis.  Qualitative research can be conducted with both internal and external stakeholders.

Why do we use qualitative research?      

Either on its own or in conjunction with quantitative data, qualitative research data helps us gain a broad and deep understanding of our audience members, including the language they use to describe our brands, how they relate to brands and products in daily life, and the role those brands and products might play in family or community relationships.


Dr. Joyce Kurpiers, is a perceptive ethnographer, group moderator and interviewer.  She serves as qualitative research consultant to Percept Research clients.  Joyce welcomes your questions and comments.

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Topics: Qualitative Research, In-depth Interviews, Joyce Kurpiers, Focus Groups