Surveys, focus groups and interviews

Focus groups, interviews and surveys are referred to as primary research tools. They help you collect new or original information. The benefit of conducting your own research, rather than using secondary information (e.g. from internet sources and trade publications) is that you can tailor your questions specifically to your business and you can gather more in-depth information.


Surveys are fixed sets of questions, which are usually used to collect quantifiable information (e.g. the percentage of people happy with a particular product). Questions in surveys are usually:

  • multiple choice
  • true/false or yes/no
  • rankings or ratings (e.g. 1–5, or strongly agree/disagree scales).

You can also include open-ended questions that give people the chance to answer a question with a statement; however, these tend to be better suited to qualitative research methods such as focus groups and interviews where you can ask follow-up questions to get more information.

Surveys are usually most effective when carried out face-to-face, but can also be completed over the phone, online, or through the post. Postal surveys are generally better suited to existing customers as they have an affinity with your business and are more likely to respond.

Keep your surveys short by not asking too many questions. Make sure your questions are clear and easy to understand. This will help you get more useful information and reduce the chances of participants losing interest or giving misleading answers. Test your questions on friends or family to make sure they are easy to answer.

There are commercial software options (e.g. Surveymonkey, Google Forms) that can provide a wide range of survey design and analysis tools.

Focus groups and interviews

Focus groups and interviews are based on a set of questions or discussion points. Sometimes they might include visual concepts and even product samples to trial. They are most effective for qualitative research, as they let you explore people's opinions and attitudes (e.g. how they feel about your products and what improvements they would like to see in your business).

When preparing for focus groups and interviews, you need to develop a list of questions and key points so that you can have a productive conversation with your participants. To get the most out of a focus group or interview:

  • ask open-ended questions – ones that can't be answered with 'yes', 'no' or another single word (e.g. rather than ask 'are you happy with our products?' ask 'which of our products are you happy with and why?')
  • repeat participants' answers to make sure you understand what they are saying
  • ask follow-up questions if you need more information about a participant's answer.

Plan where and when you will conduct focus groups or interviews and think about who will conduct them. You may decide to use a professional market research company to help if you are unfamiliar with the process. Make sure you record the answers from the interview and conversations in the focus group. You might do this with a sound recorder or take written notes. Typically focus groups last 1–3 hours and focus group participants are usually paid to attend.

Selecting participants

The number of participants in your surveys, focus groups or interviews is called the sample size. A large sample size will give you a clearer picture of your customers than a small one. While there is no set method for deciding how large or small your sample should be, it will depend on what type of primary research you are conducting (focus groups, interviews or surveys) and the time and budget you can allocate to your research.

As focus groups and interviews are generally more in-depth than surveys, you may not need a large sample size to get useful information. A typical focus group may consist of 6–8 people but you may need to conduct a number of focus groups to get the ideal mix of information you are after. For surveys, a larger sample size will help you draw more reliable conclusions from the data you collect.

The participants you select for your research must be able to answer your questions. Make sure they are familiar with the topic you are discussing, as targeting the wrong population can result in inconclusive or misleading data. Usually you select focus group participants based on criteria relevant to your customer profile (e.g. women, aged 35–45, with children in primary school).

Your participants might be existing or potential customers, depending on what you are trying to find out with your research. Before you conduct any research with your participants, make sure they agree to participate and outline any potential issues, such as confidentiality. Explain to them how you will use their information, and give them the opportunity to opt out at any time if they want.

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