Focus Groups

This is part of our research basics series written by Mary.

Focus groups

The second qualitative design we will look at is focus groups. A focus group involves a sample of 3+ participants (generally no more than 8-10) and a facilitator. Focus groups are useful in gaining a collective knowledge/perspective on issues and phenomenon, if run in an effective way. Focus groups are different to other group interviews in that they are more formal. By this I mean that there is a clearly defined purpose for the focus group and the facilitator (researcher) prompts or moderates discussion so that this aim can be met.

How not to run a focus group

How to run a focus group

To run a successful focus group the goals of the research need to be clearly defined so that the discussion can be successfully facilitated. It is a common error (see clip above) to stifle people’s speech in order to remain on topic. Instead, the facilitator should allow for participants to voice their opinions and thoughts as new ideas and useful insights may arise. At the same time, it is a bit of a balancing act as the discussion may drift too far from the end goal. If this happens, the facilitator should bring the discussion back on track by either asking a reframing question, or presenting the group with a new idea or question. If the discussion seems to be skipping a few of the predetermined questions, don’t be afraid to follow the flow and come back to the questions you missed later.

It is also important to remember that you are interested in what everyone has to say and not just the noisy few. Focus groups can often be ineffective if one or more group members’ dominant the discussion. Although this dominant voice may raise interesting points, it is essential that the facilitator take part in “giving voice” to quieter group members.

Moreover, focus groups are a qualitative research method, so it is imperative that the discussion results in qualitative information. There is no point to a focus group that simply asks participants if they like an idea, phrase, picture, and so on. Rather, the discussion needs to ask why they like it.

Creating a welcoming environment and providing a value proposition to your focus group participants is vitally important. This may be a token payment for their time, providing participants with food and beverages, or both. Refreshments are good, as not only will food be appreciated (focus groups can be lengthy), but also it provides the perfect location to discreetly place the recording device. Although participants are made aware that their responses are being recorded, they can be more hesitant and controlled in their responses if the device is visible (the same goes for video recording).

Finally, make sure you keep track of time! You don’t need a stopwatch, but be aware that you are not exceeding your allocated focus group time excessively.

Other useful tips

  • If possible, have a scribe as well as a facilitator. The scribe can either be a fly on the wall, or watching behind a two-way mirror. This will help provide context for the scribe when transcribing the recordings and allow the facilitator to interact more freely with the participants.
  • If you are conducting a focus group with children or adolescents wear jeans. You don’t need to draw attention to your attire, but jeans may help your participants feel comfortable, whereas a corporate suit may be intimidating.
  •  Position yourself so that you can see and hear all participants
  • Interactive activities work well. Consider incorporating a card sort or multimedia presentation, if applicable.
  • Don’t forget to prepare an information statement and consent form (as mentioned in the Interviews blog post).
  • Also, remember to debrief participants after the focus group and thank them for their time.
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