Even companies that rely on online research for the lion's share of their research needs sometimes run an offline focus group or interview. If you're going to go face-to-face, make the most of the medium by thinking not only about the content of your research but the context in which it unfolds.
Much research has been done on how elements of an environment can influence both psychological and physiological behaviour. Though often done in a retail space, some of the effects may be transferable to the research space of say, a focus group. Borrowing from the available research on retail environments, here are some ways you can make the most of tactile and olfactory environmental cues when you're doing face-to-face research:
- The first way we might make a person feel at ease when they're entering an unfamiliar environment is by shaking their hand. It's mere hospitality. Studies have shown support that interpersonal touch conveys safety (particularly when the person doing the touching is a woman; Williams, 2008). Without being a creep, shaking someone's hand or touching their shoulder can offer a sense of safety and/or trust, which may enhance a respondent's willingness to share and respond to questions more openly.
- Temperature (specifically warmth) has a similar effect. When evaluating how temperature affects behaviour related to decision-making, those exposed to a warm surface feel warmer and safer than those exposed to a colder surface. Though it's unlikely we'll offer participants a heating pad or a fashionable blanket, we often offer them warm beverages. The warmth of the cup may convey physiological warmth (again, related to trust and safety) and may help ease participants into more open verbal transactions.
- It is an ongoing consideration of the focus group methodology that participants will filter or adjust their responses based on the influence of others in the room. We can consider the seating in this sort of environment alongside some studies that have examined effects of different tactile sensations such as hardness vs. softness. Compared to those who sit on softer surfaces, the hard cushion-free chairs have been found to make individuals less susceptible to environmental influences (Ackerman, Nocera, & Bargh, 2010). They have opinions and stick to them. Hopefully, this would not create disharmony and thankfully, harder surfaces have not been found to have a significant influence on mood.
- It is no secret that scent is believed to enhance people's moods and perhaps influence aspects of their behaviour. It's often used to elicit memory or connect consumers with a specific brand. Sometimes in a qualitative environment, discussions can fall flat. Peppermint has been found to increase physiological arousal and engagement. A recent study exposed participants to a peppermint scent and found evidence that this particular scent enhances attention, memory, alertness, and mood (McCombs, 2011); all areas that are relevant in a research space.
These are just a few examples of how research participants might be subtly influenced by their surroundings, even though we may think we are simply being polite professional. Of course, this is not to take away from a discussion guide or a moderator - which is where the real magic comes from.