Confessions of a Focus Group Traveler

Speaker's Corner: When LiAnne Yu visits other countries, she watches people from behind a one-way mirror. She now knows which cultures prefer jeans that accentuate curvy butts.

06.08.10 | 11:14 AM ET


When visiting other countries, I often find myself sitting in a dark room, watching people from the other side of a one-way mirror.

No, I’m not talking about that kind of tourism. Rather, I’m referring to focus group research, which is part of my job. You know what I’m talking about: Focus groups consist of six to eight people who are brought together around a table to give feedback on a specific product or brand. The companies who sponsor the research—my clients—sit in the back room and listen while a moderator leads the discussion. I’ve been everywhere from St. Petersburg to Shanghai to Guatemala City to Munich, all funded by clients who need to understand their customers so they can figure out how to sell them more stuff. 

This lifestyle can sound glamorous. My friends roll their eyes and offer a mock, “Oh, poor you!” when I say things like, “I’ll be in London, Paris and Rome this month, and next month, to Seoul and Tokyo. I barely have time to do laundry, so I’ll just have to buy enough undies to last a while.”

Like Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, I end up seeing a lot of airports, hotels and office buildings. But as I’ve experienced many forms of travel throughout my life, including backpacker travel, adventure-tour travel and first-class business travel, I’ve come to appreciate focus group travel as a distinct yet still legitimate form of cultural immersion.

First, there is the food. Facilities typically provide enough snacks and meals to keep everyone happy for a whole day, and the particular offerings at each place provide an interesting cultural glimpse. In the U.S., we observers in the backroom nosh on M&Ms, pretzels and jelly bellies. Lunch is often something fast—pizza, Subway sandwiches, chips, cookies. Many colleagues who work primarily in the U.S. have complained about the “focus group fifteen”—the weight gain that comes from watching interviews all day and snacking continuously on junk food.

Outside of the U.S., there are different standards for acceptable backroom cuisine. During a recent trip to Shanghai, none of the soda cans were refrigerated, reflecting a Chinese consumer preference for room-temperature drinks. Lunch was takeout from the “Kung Fu” fast-food restaurant. Each “happy meal” included soup, rice, meat and veggies. For dinner, we had fresh Shanghai-style dumplings brought in from the restaurant next door. In between meals, we snacked on fish jerky, salted dried plums and fresh fruit. No bottomless bowls of M&Ms to graze on mindlessly.

On another recent trip, this one to Paris, my colleagues and I enjoyed éclairs and delicately packaged macaroons in rose, hazelnut and chocolate flavors along with our morning espressos. For lunch, we had tomato bisque, duck in orange sauce and perfectly crisp pomme frites. The food was brought in during our breaks, so we could focus on the delicious flavors. No noshing in the dark.

Another difference between home and Paris: In Paris, the facility served wine and beer. This has the effect of making the focus group respondents more entertaining than usual. In a recent study about social networking sites, one tipsy man started revealing how difficult it was to keep his wife and his mistress separate, now that everybody is on Facebook and can see who’s friends with whom. One of the women in the group took it upon herself to educate this man on the appropriate privacy settings—Parisian love in the era of Facebook.

Beyond the food, there are other cultural insights to be gleaned. In Brazil, groups typically start 30 minutes late and go an hour long. Nobody ever seems to mind—except for my American clients, who get antsy when things don’t go as planned.

In Japan, groups made up of the same gender are often the most engaging, which is the polar opposite of groups in Italy, where male versus female tensions bring up the most interesting conversations. 

In China, it’s acceptable for respondents to answer their mobile phones in the middle of the discussion, whereas in Germany, everyone is firmly advised to turn their phones off.

In India, respondents chat with each other and exchange business cards when the moderator leaves the room, whereas in Korea, people sit in silence.

And then there’s the actual substance. True, focus groups are, by nature, discussions focused on a particular topic, rather than a general cultural exploration. So while they may not be able to educate us on the French Revolution or post-Soviet Russian economics, they do give us a deep understanding of everyday matters important to people.

Some of the things I’ve learned in focus groups include:

Admittedly, this is a safe and vicarious way to experience locals without their knowing about us. In the back room, my colleagues and I can laugh at the respondents, talk back at them, question them, get mad at them and cheer them on—all without them ever seeing and hearing us. And while these experiences are only one-way, they offer me the opportunity to listen to locals who have nothing to do with tourism, who are speaking in their own language, on their own terms, and in their own rhythms. And even if the topics are pretty focused, they give me an understanding of bigger issues that reflect what’s important in each culture.

Sitting in a darkened room with a one-way mirror offers me a way to get up-close and kinda personal. All from a comfortable distance. 

And when I’m lucky, while I’m at it, I can enjoy a glass of wine.

LiAnne Yu is an anthropologist and experiential travel coach. And, yes, she also works as a market research consultant, running focus groups around the world.

7 Comments for Confessions of a Focus Group Traveler

Akumal Villas 06.08.10 | 4:26 PM ET

That sounds like an awesome job. It must be so interesting to watch other people in different places and cultures.

Tommy 06.08.10 | 5:13 PM ET

Fascinating! Amazing what can be learned just by watching… 06.09.10 | 9:39 AM ET

Your friends are right, you do have a great job.  Where do all of us find a job like this?  Observing people is fascinating, especially when they’re from other countries.  Every culture is different yet similar at the same time.

Cate 06.09.10 | 2:05 PM ET

Great writing, there are things you spoke about which reminded of when I was teaching corporate: the silent Koreans, the serious Japanese man with his youngified looking cell phone.

This has to be my kind of job, travel and unobtrusive observations of people. What better way to get to the nuts and bolts of a culture.

New York City Attorney 06.10.10 | 2:02 PM ET

Excellent article. Enjoyed reading about your experiences in different cultures. You can definitely learn a lot from observation and it is great that you wrote about your sightings.

Lindsay 06.16.10 | 12:53 PM ET

Great article! It must be so interesting to experience so many different cultures without biasing them with your own.

Europe Budget Planner 06.18.10 | 11:25 AM ET

Great article! It is interesting to observe cultural differences, and I image you get some real insight when people don’t realize who’s observing them. It does sound like you have a great job, and your friends are right to be jealous! :)

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