Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Focus group

I attended a focus group for four hours the other night; it paid $100. And I have to say, I got more out of it than just the cash. For the last few months, I've been reading articles submitted to PHN--reading them for grammatical and APA errors, mostly, but also for content. And in them, there is a lot of analysis of focus group interviews. The focus group has been used mostly for qualitative research, but also for clinical concepts and other types of papers. And I was beginning to think no one knew how to ask meaningful questions, and eke out answers that went beyond the bland or general.

And then I signed up for this focus group. Now, this was for the purposes of a courtroom case (criminal) which will be held in VT in the next year, I presume. So I won't say much about the case, but... The focus group was led by an out-of-state attorney consultant named Jim Lees, who impressed me very much. At first, second and third glance, he appears genial and disarming. Yet he is a brilliant questioner.

And I suspect that while this has something to do with his West Virginia home, I also think this is a great attribute for a trial lawyer. To be unassuming, non-committal, even friendly--until it is time for the counter-attack. He has a flair for asking incisive questions, remembering names and keeping the discussion flowing, non-stop. I can see why he does this job. Anyway, it all began with some introduction to the focus group (generally--what is a focus group, no specifics) some paperwork about our background and a confidentiality agreement (which I have no intention of breaking).

We introduced ourselves, and he asked questions of each of us, with humor, and then he asked about the local economy. He would ask specific people, remembering details about their lives from the introductions (there were 12 of us). Then, he asked us about health care. I had guessed that the case in question would be a civil case, based on some of the questions about money, compensation and frivolous lawsuits. But as we got deeper into the health care discussion, I began to see that it was no civil case.

He asked things like, "what do you expect from a doctor/practitioner?" "What could be improved upon?" "Do you (specific person) have a problem with examination by a female doctor?" and so on, and then, "what would you define as the hip?" "what would be an appropriate examination of the hip?" "how would you define consent?" "is it fair to file a complaint a day after something happens, even if you didn't speak up at the event?" and more! And we had not yet heard anything about the case, but I was beginning to get a clearer idea. He used a combination of direct questioning, (us) writing things down and then reading them, and us writing and then folding the paper and giving it to him. He made sure to get around the room, quickly and efficiently; no one was allowed to dominate discussion, and quiet people were asked specific questions.

We took a break (and I should mention that this was not taped, but there were three people taking notes in the room--all in all a very expensive focus group: 36 total participants ($3600) plus hiring the note-takers ($$) and Jim Lees' fees for the ultimate report. This creates the problem of fairness, since I'm sure a poor defendant could not have afforded this) and when we came back, the case was introduced.

We heard the details of the case--slowly (it has not been widely publicized, probably because VT is very small) because as he was talking about the case, he asked us questions about our perceptions and prior knowledge: how did we understand this specialty? Did any of the facts in the biography raise questions, and why? What did we perceive happened based on the charges, and what did we want to know?

He then played a tape (a wiretap), which was awkward to listen to, and I didn't want to meet anyone's eyes, I think, and instead--so as to focus only on the tape, and not on any reactions--I doodled on my paper, looking down. Then he asked us whether we felt the recording was damaging, and why. We talked about the tape, and the charges, and we were free to ask questions--and there were many, because there were a fair amount of details to be discussed. Lees answered them to the best of his ability, and then we had to make a judgement on the charges based on what we had heard. I have no idea what the end results were, since they were private, but I imagine they were mixed. Or so I would think--I felt like I might have been an outlier in the group, but perhaps not. Everyone, regardless of education level, took this very seriously and were earnest and thoughtful in their responses.

My guess is, though he could not say, the report was commissioned for the defense, and not for the state, though I could be wrong. I will be very interested to see how the case is resolved. At any rate, THAT is a focus group.

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