Viewing facilities are now taken for granted but they made their first appearance in the UK nearly 20 years ago. They generally modelled themselves, in the early days, on the cosiness of domestic living rooms where UK group discussions had historically thrived.

In the beginning, debate even flourished among qualitative researchers as to whether viewing facilities were acceptable to their profession! All kinds of problems were anticipated but, as history has shown, they prospered because they fulfilled the changing needs of the qualitative group discussion market place.

Looking back, the changeover to viewing facilities was primarily client driven. A desire for a teamwork approach to research methodology and key findings, an increasing reliance on video and computer technology combined with the benefits of comfort and convenience, served to guarantee the long-term future of professional group discussion facilities. The latest industry estimates indicate that over 75% of qualitative projects now incorporate the use of viewing facilities for some or all their group discussions.

It’s hardly surprising that, to service this increasing demand, around four or five new viewing facilities have successfully opened each year. There are now over 100 available to qualitative researchers and their clients in the UK, varying in size and style as well as technical and service quality.

Such disparity between facilities was one of the key factors behind the launch of The Viewing Facilities Association. It was founded in 1996 to help promote good practice in such areas as data protection, respondent and recruitment care, technical equipment and health and safety.

But even within these agreed industry standards, the diversity between viewing facilities is immense. A wise choice of facility eases the stress on a moderator and can enhance the depth of discussion. A poor choice, by contrast, can inhibit group interaction or create unwelcome logistical or technological hiccups. The billion-dollar question is how to select the right one?

An initial checklist derived from the project’s objectives is always the best starting point. Most facilities will be happy to discuss your requirements — by telephone, e-mail or even by a visit to the facility or its web site. This initial contact will at least provide an indication of its friendliness and helpfulness, some idea of its availability and a measure of its suitability in terms of practical and technical requirements.

Unlike the US, where there is a greater standardisation in the office block location, style and set-up of viewing facilities, UK viewing facilities vary immensely and it really pays to do some preliminary research. It’s wise to investigate the views of fellow moderators since here, has elsewhere, there is no substitute for personal recommendation. Find out why some facilities are more popular with qualitative researchers; others with clients.

There is, on occasion, no choice - just one facility in a preferred location -but for the majority of projects a minimum of three or four options usually exists. There are now viewing facilities in all key UK regions as well as a choice of central and suburban venues in most of the bigger cities.

So how do you choose? Other than location, the starting point must be the kind of respondents sought. Some viewing facilities are geared up to serve the needs of business-to-business focus groups or specialised IT and telecoms projects, others geared down to children’s play sessions and teenage samples, while there are also facilities targeted at the different socio-economic groupings.

Practical considerations should also be considered, though. It’s worth checking on ease of access for clients and respondents as well as travelling time and hotel expenses. Then, too, there’s the issue of what size groups a facility can hold.

Over the years, focus groups have become larger and, increasingly, clients wish to attend on a regular basis. Most moderators have preferred room layouts for different group sizes or need to be certain they can accommodate all their clients comfortably.

A key question nowadays centres on the kind of technical equipment required - from simple VHS playback to video conferencing or live Internet access for every respondent. The needs of international clients have also to be considered - from simultaneous translation facilities for Japanese clients to the additional service demands of North American clients.

An aspect that can be overlooked is catering, one of the key facility discriminators in the US - with the UK fast following suit. The quality, freshness and presentation of the sandwiches served to respondents and the buffets served to clients are paramount.

And then, of course, budgetary considerations must be taken into account. This is always a tricky one, since it is very difficult to compare rates given that there is no standardisation of time band charges, plus some facilities prefer to charge an ‘all in’ rate, while others settle on charging a ‘flat fee plus extras’. It is always best to compare facility rates and to establish exactly what is included in the quoted price.

It’s a checklist that could run on and on, yet most telling of all are the unchanging human values that lie at the heart of our industry. For while viewing facilities are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in their technological line-up, more impressive in their physical set-up and more comfortable in terms of amenities like air-conditioning - what matters more than all of these is the hospitality on offer.

Despite all the new trends and innovations, viewing facilities provide a ‘people’ service to a ‘people’ industry. This means making everyone feel welcome and comfortable. It means recognising that relaxed communication is our lifeblood. As such, friendliness and helpfulness and the certainty of facility support-staff being on the moderator’s side will always be noticeable in the top-rated facilities.

Positive energy is motivational and in our unpredictable world, viewing facilities should offer a safe, relaxing haven conducive to the optimal exploration of the qualitative research objectives.