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nQual Rich Focus reviewed

In Brief

What it does

Hosted software solution for online focus groups in real time. Features replicate many of the capabilities of conventional groups.



Our ratings

Score 5 out of 5Ease of use

Score 2 out of 5Compatibility with other software

Score 4 out of 5Value for money


Single group is £450. 10 groups £350 each, with volume discounts available. Includes technical support and moderator training.


  • Extremely easy to use for moderators and participants
  • Can present a wide range of stimulus material
  • Offers several novel research techniques
  • Provides a complete transcript for analysis at the end


  • Only supports Windows for both moderator and participants
  • Not completely DIY yet: management module to be developed
  • Real time groups only – no support for asynchronous participation

In Depth

To some, the notion of conducting a focus group online is as unsatisfactory as one of those ‘restricted view’ theatre tickets where all you see is a triangle of mostly bare stage. Whether behind the pillar or in an online focus group, you may need to try harder to discern what is going on without eye contact, body language or other visual clues – and all can be deceptive at times. Yet a restricted seat is infinitely better than no seat.

To the generation that thinks nothing unusual of making friends and sharing comments with strangers through such social network sites as Second Life, MySpace and Facebook, nqual’s Rich Focus research platform actually makes much sense as a coherent research method than much of the current research hubris around Web 2.0. What is lost is made up through access to targets that would be impossible to reach by other routes.

Rich Focus is a web-based for online research in real time but in virtual space. In many ways it resembles web-conference tools for business meetings like Webex or GoToMeeting – yet without the accompanying, and often excruciating inefficient 10-way telephone conversation. Rich Focus assumes all the conversation is carried out in instant messaging chat, but in a very research-literate way.

The process starts conventionally enough as you write your topic guide, which you upload in advance. You can recruit offline, or from your own panel, and once you have agreement, you send them an initial email with a software download, which is a one-off activity. One plug in will work with Internet Explorer, but a better solution is to use the dedicated nqual plug-in and browser, which locks down the capabilities and avoids all problems with participants’ browser settings.

Initiations are then issued with an embedded link and at the appointed hour, everyone logs on and can ‘see’ who else is online – identified by a name and a colour. For respondents, the screen is carved up into three panels: one where they can see their name and other member group, including the moderator; another where the questions, answers and discussion takes place, and a third area where stimulus material can be presented.

Moderators have a few more controls, but not so many to make it complicated. As you click on the topic in the guide, a timer starts, if you have added timings to your guide – you can see it counting down, but tactfully, neither participants nor clients can. All contributions from participants are colour coded to match their names – a simple aid to differentiate people and their comments. When a respondent types, a visual light bulb by their name tells you that a response is imminent. It is a simple but useful device that calms down the tangle of overlapping comments that is familiar to most Second Life and other online chat users.

As you work your way through the deceptively simple but intelligently thought out capabilities in this software, you soon see other ways that the more obvious lacks of the online focus groups are compensated for by the new tricks you get in return.

You can introduce stimulus material – images, sound or video – and you can give your respondents control to add pointers, positive ticks or negative crosses, or to circle things and add annotations – a versatile set of tools which opens up endless possibilities for concept testing, ideation, co-creation and more. At any point, you can also turn off the ability for participants to see what others are saying, to get reactions uninfluenced by others, then it can be switched back on once everyone has said their bit, for general discussion. A built in polling tool lets participants vote in secret, then the results can be viewed as a group, for more discussion.

The ability to move unobtrusively between public and private comment also allows a moderator to make a one-to-one comment to a contributor, or even for a co-moderator to step in and do some offline how-did-you-know-that type of questioning. Client observers can also talk one-to-one to group moderators, and moderators can even appeal for help if the something they have not briefed you on should rear its head. In a ‘real’ group, such behaviour would be highly destructive.

When the group is over, the greatest joy is to get the full transcript right away, as a Word or Word or Excel file. The Excel output is organised with comments in one column and contributor name in another, which makes for very simple sorting and filtering. It is easy to import this into CAQDAS tools such as MAXQDA or XSight, though unfortunately the structure is lost – a structured exchange (like triple-S for quant data) would be very nice here.

At present, the software lacks the management tools to let you start new surveys, upload the guide, issue invitations and download transcripts for yourself, though these features are planned. For the time being, nqual performs these tasks for you. It is also a pity the respondent download works on Windows PCs, effectively cutting out any Mac users you’re your research, which could be an issue in some sectors. These lacks at the periphery bound to be remedied as demand increases – there is much good research to be done with what Rich Focus already provides.

Customer viewpoint: Paul Dixon, ICD Research, London

ICD Research is a full-service agency in London providing a typical mix of qual and quant research – around 70 per cent of which is carried out online. Group MD Paul Dixon has used Rich Focus extensively, and is impressed:

“I have been interested in online groups for a long time. From a research perspective you can tell that nqual has been designed with researchers in mind, as it captures a lot of what you want to replicate in an offline focus group. It is very well laid out in terms of your topic guide but still allows you the flexibility to follow an impromptu direction. It also works extraordinarily well in terms of being be able to have a second moderator liaising and talking privately to the client and for the client to be able to feed into the group indirectly when they need to. If a client has to interrupt a conventional group, it really disrupts the group and can undermine your authority.

“Clients really like it – they see it as very distinct in its application. There will always be a need for offline groups for particular topics or where the analysis focuses more on the interactions and non verbal elements, but this works extraordinarily well for proposition testing, website evaluation, advertising testing and it offers clients a way for them to engage more with their customers.”

One of Paul’s favourite features is image tool, where respondents can mark up pictures, illustrations or even websites being displayed directly. “They can circle what they see, or put a tick or cross. It almost gives you quantitative information in what they react to. Nqual have just managed to get all the little components and the small barriers to online research right.  For example, the ability to see who is typing in real time dispels the barrier that online can be disjointed. You might ask another question before people have answered the first one. With this, you can see when people are typing and wait for their response.

“The transcript is probably one of the biggest advantages. With offline you send off your videotape and get the transcript a week later and after a hefty fee – and you get no names next to the transcript. Here, within a matter of hours, you get transcript with the persons name, what they have said, and the ability to filter it. It is making life so much easier for the team here. And because we select our respondents from our online panel, we have all the background information too. I like the simplicity of it – from uploading the topic guide to downloading the transcript, it is a seamless process.

“It is never going to replace offline, but it is a viable methodology in it own right. It works and we have proven it over the 30 or so online groups we have conducted online over the last two years. I think I am actually getting richer data, and from people or audiences that sometimes you would not be able to attract to attend a group in Central London at say, 6pm. I think nQual are onto a winner with this.”

A version of this review first appeared in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, October 2007, Issue 497