How The Times lost focus

To see how “research” can be shockingly misused look no further than a story on the front page of today’s Times (April 10).

On the face of it, it spells doom for London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone: “Voters in outer London appear likely to back Boris Johnson for a second term as Mayor. They dismiss Ken Livingstone as dishonest.”

Inside, spread across two pages, is more bad news for Ken ‘The Newt’ Livingstone, under the heading ‘Boris? Mad as a hatter – but you just can’t trust Red Ken’.

The story quotes “residents of a key suburban borough” as defending Boris ‘Bullingdon’ Johnson’s privileged background, work ethic, and even his extra-marital affairs. “Praise for Mr Johnson was expressed in terms rarely heard in connection with domestic politicians,” the article continues.

While the inside page story makes it clear that these were the findings of a Populus focus group, I wonder how many readers realise how small these groups are. They would have to read nearly 300 words before learning that this one comprised seven people.

Personally, not being a Londoner, I couldn’t care less whether Ken or Boris wins, but I do care that my favourite national newspaper gives front page credence to such a tiny sample of voters and makes huge generalisations about the intentions of many thousands of voters. No wonder Ken thinks he’s being persecuted by the media.

Focus groups are a notoriously unreliable method of research. Selecting a balance of personality or voter types to join the groups is tricky. Asking the right questions in a way that does not influence the answers is tricky. Ensuring dominant individuals do not take over the discussion is tricky. And the trickiest task of all is interpreting correctly the group’s conclusions.

‘Mad as a hatter’ would be a good description of anyone who put their faith in just one focus group. You need several to even begin to hazard a guess at what the general populace might be thinking. You certainly wouldn’t build political policy on the basis of a single group.

It was misleading to run a front page story without making the smallness of the sample much clearer.

It was also unfair to Ken Livingstone. If you assume that predictions of success are likely to sway voters in Boris Johnson’s favour then stories like this could become a self fulfilling prophecy.

It’s interesting to read why the world’s most valuable company does not run focus groups.
Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, explained: “They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.”

I can back that up with personal experience. My most expensive business mistake ever was based on putting too much faith in focus groups, and believing that these tiny samples could be relied on to represent a wider truth.

GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.