The Fishbowl Technique - Gaining Deep Insights with Polarized Participants


When the participants in a focus group hold wide-ranging views on a given issue, gaining clear insights can be challenging. The typical solution – dividing the participants into homogeneous groupings based on their demographics – helps to isolate the viewpoint of each group and aids in effective analysis. The fishbowl technique generates even deeper insights by allowing each group to “observe” the interactions of its “opposing” group. Participants enjoy the “comfort” of speaking with their peers while responding to the stimulus provided by their “opponents.” The research team gets an insider's view into the “culture” of each group.


My observations suggest that the groups of participants with whom I have worked over the years are now dividing more sharply over certain issues.

For example:

  • The health-care reform debate has raised a host of issues that have changed or strengthened the opinions, or instilled doubt in the minds of patients regarding the proper use of a large number of medications and medical products.
  • Regarding textbooks, the political climate in different parts of the country increasingly influences the type of content deemed to be appropriate.
  • The more strident debate over certain controversial issues affects the way in which both supporters and opponents of candidates, initiatives or involved non-profit organizations participate in the political process.


Let’s start with a generic example of a study that Next Step Consulting conducted using this technique. It is important to note that the example involves telephone focus groups, but the process can be conducted in any qualitative market research setting including live groups, online video groups and bulletin boards.


  • A client wants to understand the causes behind the decline in sales of a specific product and suspects that recent legislation and the introduction of a new competitive product are the key factors.


  • Separate groups of renewing customers and former customers were recruited for a series of telephone focus groups.

Fishbowl Technique

  • During a portion of each group, participants listened to and then discussed their reactions to audio segments of representative portions of the discussion from previously conducted “opposing” groups.

Like fish in a fishbowl, the moderator and market research observers view each group in isolation. As well, at the moderator’s discretion, the participants of each group “observe” each other, but without direct interaction. They then discuss their reactions with their peers to the comments of that “other group.”

The fishbowl technique leverages the “us” versus “them” dynamic to expose the underlying beliefs, intensity of feelings and the sources of information driving the perceptions of the participants in each of the opposing groups.

While interacting with their peers, participants generally experience a high level of comfort and a minimal need for defensiveness because they feel accepted as a member of the “team.” This facilitates the expression of their true feelings, as well as the identification of their stated and implied beliefs and assumptions about an issue. In many cases, the research team gets an insider's view of the culture of the group. Occasionally, encouraging discussion about what is behind an inside joke or casual comment exposes atypically deep levels of insight. Comparing the findings from both groups is usually especially enlightening.


This technique is based on the premise that you can identify two or more groups of people who hold distinctly different views on an issue that is important to your company.

Some likely pairs of participants include:

  • Physicians and patients
  • Veteran patients and those who are newly diagnosed
  • School district administrators and teachers
  • Teachers and students
  • Customers and non-customers, former customers or customers of competitors
  • Advocates and detractors of a candidate, ballot initiative, social issue, etc…
  • Parents and their children
  • Males and females
  • The elderly and those younger

The fishbowl technique works well to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Determine areas of common belief
  • Gauge the areas of greatest controversy
  • Identify the range of informational sources exerting influence in your marketplace
  • Explore the foundational beliefs or attitudes driving a variance of perception or opinion
  • Identify “disconnects” – variances in expectations, sources of dissatisfaction and disappointment related to a product or service
  • Assess reactions to various concepts, messages, programs or services in order to determine what might work for all customers
  • Assess reactions to various concepts, messages, programs or services in order to determine how to vary things to best serve each distinct audience


© Next Step Consulting