Focus group

What is it?
A focus group is a group interview where attitudes and perceptions are developed in part by interaction with other people. It is a carefully planned discussion designed to obtain perceptions of a defined interest area in a permissive, non-threatening environment. Focus groups are also used to a) obtain reactions to events, ideas, practices, policies, technologies and products/services, b) understand human behavior, c) support problem identification, planning, implementation and assessment, and/or d) co-develop something new or collaboratively enhance something old.

What is needed?
Typical focus groups will have from 5 to 10 participants with common characteristics relative to the discussion topic seated together in a comfortable environment with a trained moderator/facilitator. Focus groups usually last between 45 and 90 minutes. (The quality of the process and the information obtained declines if they are longer than this.) Participants tend to be purposively identified and selected based on their knowledge, interest or other relationship to the topic and/or each other. The seating should be arranged so participants face each other. Access to a black board, white board, flip chart can help participants communicate and help the facilitator summarize. At least three focus groups are generally needed for a research study. Focus groups are appropriate when interactions among participants are desired.

Is an expert needed?
Yes (describe below) Expertise as a moderator or facilitator is important, as well as experience in systematically analyzing the recorded discussion afterwards. A good note taker is invaluable, even if the session is recorded digitally. A comfortable environment is essential for a candid discussion. The most casual focus group interviews take place in locations familiar to the participants. There are also specialized facilities for focus groups that permit discreet observation.

How to
Design the overall approach.
1. Identify clear objectives, determine how many focus groups are needed, how many participants, etc.
2. Obtain any necessary permissions.
3. Select a location conducive to open discussion that ideally is familiar to the participants.
4. Prepare a script for opening that discussion that explains the context, goals and procedures, and includes obtaining informed consent.
5. Prepare a topic outline with candidate questions designed to encourage discussion in a guided but not overly structured manner so that the outcome is more of a conversation than a question-and-answer session.
6. Select an analysis approach (e.g., grounded theory, content analysis) and prepare for the analysis (setting up data files, etc.).
7. Identify, select and invite participants matching common criteria related to the topic. Test the approach, refine it according to what is learned, and test again if necessary.

Prepare the setting
1. A comfortable environment is essential.
2. Provide access to refreshments if possible.
3. Arrange the room so that the participants face each other.
4. The moderator/facilitator should have a designated seat among the participants which also permits easy access to a black board, white board, flipchart or screen.
5. If any technology is needed (recording equipment, computer projector, etc.), test it before the participants arrive.
6. Ensure the recorder is included in a way that permits recording in an unobtrusive way.

Conduct the interview
1. Welcome people as they arrive and make informal introductions.
2. Summarize the purpose and goals of the focus group, the interview process (ground rules, anticipated flow, recording method, etc.) and how the results will be analyzed and used.
3. Obtain informed consent. This includes describing voluntary nature of the process, any risks perceived, how privacy, confidentially and anonymity will be protected, how data will be managed securely, any publications anticipated, and any other research ethics issues.
4. Facilitate a guided discussion using a topic outline (list of major topics) and /or a questioning route (a sequence of ordered questions written in a conversational tone) to informally structure the discussion. (Check that the recording method is working periodically!)
5. Be prepared to make intermittent summaries when it is deemed helpful, giving the opportunity for further input. Summarize the overall discussion at the end.
The discussion between participants is key, so the facilitator should be the least heard of all present.
6. End the interview with a summary question and one that includes the opportunity to add something that may have been missed.

Analyze the results
1. During the focus group: Facilitation techniques can ensure all participants are heard. Differences in views can lead to discussion or can limit it when deemed sensitive or controversial – treat these as opportunities to probe for clarification. Probing is also necessary if there are evasive, cryptic, inconsistent or vague comments. The outline is only a guide – if the conversation stays within the topic of concern but flows in a different order, flexible. It is also important to allow for “surprises” that often yield valuable insight but may pull outside of what the outline anticipated.
2. Immediately after the focus group: Confirm the recording and document the process (seating arrangement, high or low points, surprises). Identify important themes and compare with any other focus groups.
3. Within 24 hours: Transcribe the recording or notes into readable form.
4. Within a few days: Conduct a thematic analysis of the interview using a systematic methodology with verifiable and repeatable procedures such as content analysis, discourse analysis, or grounded theory-based analysis.

Good practice tips
1. Plan in advance and practice, practice, practice! Careful planning leads to better design and well-selected participants. Testing leads to design refinements that will make a difference.
2. The power of the focus group is in the combination of direct responses participants give to questions and the spontaneous discussion that takes place between them. Therefore the facilitator’s voice should be the least heard.
3. Design for analysis. Ideally focus groups lead to unanticipated information. However there are always themes anticipated in advance, and the topical needs to reflect the themes of interest while also providing the opportunity for surprise.
4. Guide but do not direct. Anything a facilitator says can influence the responses. Therefore pauses and undirected probes are essential. Pauses allow the participants to speak. Probes like “Could you provide more detail? Could you use an example?” bring depth without directing the discussion.
5. Good focus group questions are open-ended (e.g., “What do you think about…” and precise (e.g., “Where do you get information about…” rather than “To what extent…”). “Yes - No” and “Why?” questions should be avoided. Questions about features, characteristic, attributes and influences that may lead to decisions or actions are more effective. Transition questions help move to other topics in the outline.
6. Influence. Participants can (and will) be affected by other participants energy and answers, generating more information. Advantage: Often provides different information and depth than individual interviews. Disadvantage: Differences among participants are not systematically captured.
7. Triangulation among multiple data sources can lead to a better and more verifiable understanding of the meaning and implications of the findings of a focus group. This not only means multiple focus groups but also the necessity of including other data sources and methods (e.g., document analysis, semi-structured interviews) in the research design.

Success stories
Focus groups are among the most commonly used qualitative research tools. They are widely used in the commercial world for not only testing out new ideas, features or even whole products, but co-developing those ideas, features and even whole products with participants. In science, a discovery may not directly involve participants in a focus group, but understanding the ramifications of scientific advances and how they might actually be used can and should be co-developed.

To learn more
There are many qualitative research methods books and documents which provide greater depth about focus groups. There also some practical “how to” guides that are useful:

Krueger, R.A. 2002. Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews. Online:

Elliot and Associates. 2005. Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group.

Omni Institute. 2013. Toolkit for Conducting Focus Groups.

Focus Group

Created on 16 Sep 2016 11:18 by Barron Orr
Updated on 28 Nov 2016 13:26 by Barron Orr

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