A few years ago my friend Tony came up with an interesting idea he called focus troupes. He was having difficulties using focus groups to get feedback on really new products, where the context of use was as important as the product features.
Think about good science fiction – what is often described about futuristic products is not the detail of the device’s form, but the function of its use. The description provides the context that that makes the device logical.
A “focus troupe” consists of an audience of about 20 people who sit around tables of four or five people. However, rather than conducting a product presentation or showing a video, a moderator sets the context for the dramatic vignette (with real actors!) that will follow. Next, the first dramatic vignette is presented, featuring the new product concept or concepts. The vignette casts a familiar scenario demonstrating how the new product concept might be used. The familiar scenarios are derived from experience or from the ethnographic work that supports the product concept. The audience then takes part in several structured conversations about the concept, armed with a full understanding of the implications, operations, and expectations of the product.
Actor workshop techniques - such as freezing the scene and changing what happens next, or building on someone else's story - can be easily incorporated to enhance the experience or inspire questions.
To structure the conversation, Tony uses Edward DeBono’s six hat concept, which breaks a conversation into parts according to the type of comment someone can provide. This works to focus the conversation and builds some efficiency into the discussion.
I've always thought this was such an innovative and creative approach to a fairly complex research problem. Too often we default to techniques that we know when we can easily add some "flavoring" to make it what we need.