I've just taken part in a focus group and been rewarded fairly handsomely for my trouble. It was fun, I got heard, and I know exactly how the report is going to turn out.
It was about the local railway station, propensity to use it and what needs to be done to improve it to generate more usage.
Well, you see, therein lies the first problem: a hypothesis from the researchers (or more likely, clients) that colours the entire line of questioning and expectation, even subconsciously. I can think of a dozen ways to improve the station, but not a single one of them will make me use it more - I use it based on need and suitability for my trip; and frankly, the presence of a self-service under-arm-sweetening pie machine won't change my need.
I also had to remind the researchers that the intent of their question mattered. For example, their original framework was what would stimulate us users to use it more. But towards the end of the session this has drifted into "what improvements should be made and how urgently". Well, for whose benefit? I had to challenge those who said that improved tropical spa waiting facilities would be wonderful for people having to change trains here on their journey through. Sure, but will it change what you do.
And then there was the final round of conclusion making - that wonderful concept, the consensus. Yep that mythical creature that finds its way into so many wayward decisions and ill-informed conclusions.
There is no such thing as a consensus. Repeat after me. Altogether now (geddit?)
What there is, is a group of individual needs and opinions, half of which conflict. Trying to find a consensus is like trying to shove 18 bowls of fruit into a rucksack: it will still come out rucksack shaped, if a little sticky and damp.
Unsurprisingly, most recommendations came out A1 - high priority, now! (can you have A3? High priority, any time next decade?). Apart from being fed "medium" as the starting point on most issues, in order to achieve consensus the baseline was taken from the first person who spoke, until basically everyone nodded. Because, of course, if you don't all nod, you don't have a consensus.
Seriously, this will tell the client nothing useful about true need and what response they will generate by 'responding' to it. They will get a list where everything from a new information poster to a £30 million refurbishment are all urgently needed to turn the place round.
Go on, stick a semi-automatic hair-cutting shoe-polishing machine on the platform if you like, but I'll still be working in the Atlantis end of outer Timbuktu, so I'll still be driving there, nowhere near your spangly half-empty railway station.
(The cash in the envelope was all right though.)