Focus group

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a facilitator. It is used to learn about opinions on a designated topic or service, and to guide future action.

Focus groups allow for informal and frank discussion among individuals who share something in common. For example, a service may choose to facilitate a focus group of people who recently used their services as a way of learning what is working well about the service and what needs to be improved.

Focus groups generally are comprised of no more than 8-10 people, last no more than 2-3 hours, and are guided by some open-ended but "focused" questions. Again, an open-ended question is one that requires more than a yes or no answer, and this is important to consider when constructing questions.

How are focus groups different from regular "groups"?

A focus group is different in three basic ways:

  • The group has a specific discussion topic. The group's task is to stay on it, and not wander all over the place.
  • The group has a facilitator. The facilitator’s job is to keep the group on course.
  • The group's composition and the group discussion are carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment, in which people are free to talk openly. Members are actively encouraged to express their own opinions, and also respond to other members, as well as to questions posed by the leader.

Why run a focus group?

You will get more information from the group than you could get from any amount of questioning of individuals. This comes from the meaningful interaction between members. During a focus group, the facilitator gets the participants to interact with each other in a way that reveals additional information, so every other person can hear and respond to comments. The hallmark of the focus group is open-ended group interaction. People can answer in their own words, rather than being forced to give yes or no, multiple choice, or numerical answers. More importantly, people are able to freely react to each other’s responses.

Stimulation is created by the excitement, group support, challenge, new ideas and other features of the interaction. There is an almost irresistible pull to say things that they would ordinarily not reveal. Here are some types of interactions you may see in a well-run focus group:

  • Reaction to each other’s comments
  • Drawing each other out
  • Asking questions you didn’t think to ask
  • Building on each other’s’ ideas
  • Sparking new ideas
  • Jogging each other’s’ memories
  • Modifying each other’s comments
  • Filling in-completions and gaps in knowledge
  • Nudging each other out of ruts and habitual thinking
  • Taking opposing positions
  • Persuading each other
  • Changing their opinions

How do you run a focus group?

Before you begin

The group's composition and the group discussion should be carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment, so that participants feel free to talk openly and give honest opinions. Since participants are actively encouraged to not only express their own opinions, but also respond to other members and questions posed by the facilitator, focus groups offer a depth, nuance, and variety to the discussion that would not be available through surveys. Additionally, because focus groups are structured and directed, but also expressive, they can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time. In short, focus groups are a good way to gather in-depth information about a community’s thoughts and opinions on a topic

Ask yourself:

  • "Why do I want to conduct a focus group?"
  • "Why am I doing this?"
  • "What do I hope to learn?"

Find a good facilitator

Your facilitator will determine the success of your group. What kind of facilitator do you want? Probably someone who:

  • Has experience facilitating groups
  • Knows something about the topic
  • Will relate well to the focus group participants
  • Will work together with you to give you the outcomes you want

Find a recorder

A small but important point, often neglected. You want to make sure people's ideas don't get lost. Someone should be writing down what is said, in the same way as taking minutes at a meeting. Arrange for this in advance. Alternatively, you can record, with the group's consent. This will take more time to transcribe and interpret the transcription but you will have a more complete, accurate, and permanent record.

Decide who should be invited

Ideally, those invited should be a representative sample of those whose feedback you are concerned about.

Decide about incentives

That is, should you offer an incentive for people to participate? Maybe not. In that case, why should people come? What's in it for them?

Possibly people will come just because they want to help. Or because they think they will meet other interesting people, or learn something, or just have fun. Maybe the novelty of the experience itself will be a motivator.

But maybe those reasons aren't enough, and some other incentive is called for. Money is one; sometimes focus group members get paid, even a small amount. If you can afford this, consider it. If you can't, then think about other possible incentives: public recognition; something to take home; a later training opportunity.

Decide on the meeting particulars

Specifically:

  • What day?
  • What place?
  • What time?
  • How long?
  • How many groups?

Prepare your questions.

When you go into the group, go in prepared. Don't wing it. Instead, you should make up a list of topics and questions you want to ask. This doesn't mean you will recite your questions from your prepared list, one-at-a-time. Your question list is a guide, rather than an exact script; but have that guide with you.

  • "What are some of your thoughts about what's going on now?"
  • "Would you say you are satisfied with the current situation, with the way things are going on?"
  • (If so) "What are you satisfied about? Why is that?" (Or, "What's going well...?")
  • "Are there things you are dissatisfied with, that you would like to see changed?" (Or, "What's not going well...?")
  • (If so) "What are they? Why is that? How should they change? What kinds of things would you like to see happen?"
  • "How about this particular aspect (of the topic). What do you think about that?"
  • Repeat for different aspects of the topic, with variations in style. For example, if the main focus group topic was "community policing," some key aspects to cover might be visibility, sensitivity, interaction, respect, etc.
  • "Some people have said that one way to improve X is to do Y. Do you agree with this?' (Or, "How do you feel about that?")
  • "Are there other recommendations that you have, or suggestions you would like to make?"
  • "Are there other things you would like to say before we wind up?"
  • Some "probes", or follow-ups", designed to get more information on a given question:
  • "Can you say more about that?"
  • "Can you give an example?"
  • "Jane says X. How about others of you. What do you think?"
  • "How about you, Joe. Do you have some thoughts on this?"
  • "Does anyone else have some thoughts on that?"

Recruit your members.

Call them up. Write them a letter. Or find them.

Remember:

  • Other things equal, personal contact works best.
  • Stress your benefits. Why should people come?

When the group meets

Conduct the group

A common sequence of events for many focus groups goes something like this: (The leader usually takes responsibility for carrying them out.)

  • Thank people for coming.
  • Review the purpose of the group, and the goals of the meeting. Set the stage.
  • Go over the flow of the meeting -- how it will proceed, and how the members can contribute. Lay out the ground rules. Encourage open participation.
  • Set the tone. This is important, because probably few of your members will have been in a focus group before.
  • Ask an opening question. This could be a very general question ("What are your general thoughts about X?"), or something more specific. Both choices are justifiable; and both types of questions might be asked before the group ends.
  • Make sure that all opinions on that question get a chance to be heard. How do you do this?

After the meeting

Look at the data

In some cases, you can devise and use a coding system to "score" the data and count the number of times a particular theme is expressed. Experience helps here. But whether you do this or not, try to have more than one person review the results independently. (Because even the best of us have our biases.) Then come together to compare your interpretations and conclusions.

  • What patterns emerge?
  • What are the common themes?
  • What new questions arise?
  • What conclusions seem true?

Resources

Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews, by Richard A. Krueger, is concise resource with specific steps and tips on conducting group interviews.

Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group is provided by Eliot & Associates. In this guide you will find checklists and samples of items such as focus group questions, recruitment flyer, invitee tracking form, introductory remarks, sample consent form, data analysis format, and synthesized report format. This is another excellent and detailed example.

Introduction to Conducting Focus Groups, by NOAA Coastal Services Center, is a comprehensive introduction to key elements and practices that will increase the success of a focus group effort. Topics covered in this publication include focus group basics, preparing for the focus group, developing effective questions, planning the focus group session and analyzing the data.

Review of focus groups

Focus groups allow for informal and frank discussion among individuals who share something in common. For example, a service may choose to facilitate a focus group of customers who recently used our services as a way of learning what is working well about the service and what needs to be improved.

The focus group has re-gained popularity in recent years as an effective feedback method and are a tried and true way to engage populations to learn in-depth information about opinions, perceptions, and experiences. They are a form of qualitative research that embraces group interaction to maximize participant responsiveness and allow for in-depth probing. Focus groups generally are comprised of no more than 8-10 people, last no more than 2-3 hours, and are guided by some open-ended but "focused" questions. Again, an open-ended question is one that requires more than a yes or no answer, and this is important to consider when constructing questions.

It is important to consider a number of issues before conducting a focus group:

  • Will transportation be provided to and from the group? Childcare? Refreshments?
  • A comfortable, nonthreatening atmosphere?
  • How will confidentiality be ensured?
  • Who do we want as group members, and why?
  • In what language will the group be conducted, and what are the implications of this? Do we have a facilitator who can guide without "leading" the group?
  • Will we tape record the group? If not, who will take notes and how will these notes be used?

To be successful, a focus group needs meaningful interaction. During a focus group, the moderator gets the customers to interact with each other in a way that reveals additional information, so every other person can hear and respond to comments. The hallmark of the focus group is open-ended group interaction. Customers can answer in their own words, rather than being forced to give yes or no, multiple choice, or numerical answers. More importantly, people are able to freely react to each other’s responses.

Stimulation is created by the excitement, group support, challenge, new ideas and other features of the interaction. There is an almost irresistible pull to say things that they would ordinarily not reveal. Here are some types of interactions you may see in a well-run focus group:

  • Reaction to each others’ comments
  • Drawing each other out
  • Asking questions you didn’t think to ask
  • Building on each others’ ideas
  • Sparking new ideas
  • Jogging each others’ memories
  • Modifying each others’ comments
  • Filling in-completions and gaps in knowledge
  • Nudging each other out of ruts and habitual thinking
  • Taking opposing positions
  • Persuading each other
  • Changing their opinions

As a result of stimulation, you get more information from the group than you could possibly get from any amount of questioning of individuals.

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