Focus Groups

A focus group is a planned group discussion. The purpose is to obtain feedback, opinions and ideas through a conversation among the participants, who are selected by the researcher. The researcher (or research assistant) is the moderator of the session and uses directed questions to guide the conversation. Like an interview, the researcher does not guide the discussion through his own feedback and does not try to influence the participants’ responses. However, unlike the interview, the discussion among the participants may influence other participants’ opinions. Focus groups are often used in conjunction with other types of research to solicit feedback on certain aspects of the research.

Focus Group Basics

To use focus groups effectively in research, the researcher must plan carefully. Some of the things the research must consider are the following:

The number of focus groups that will be held.

The more focus groups there are, the better the reliability of the data that is collected. However, the more groups there are, the more time (and money) that must be invested. One focus group may be enough for some research; other research might benefit from several groups. The balance between cost and the amount of new information that can be collected from additional focus group discussions on the same topic should be found.

The type and number of participants in each focus group.

The members of focus groups are selected with purpose; it is not a random process. Because the purpose of a focus group is to get productive feedback on a specific topic, the researcher has to be sure that the people in the group have the knowledge needed to give that feedback. Specific criteria for participants should be established as part of the research development process. A typical focus group has between six and ten participants, though smaller groups may be used for piloting questions and procedures and with novice moderators.

The setting for the discussion.

Focus groups should be held in a location that is convenient to participants and in a room large enough to accommodate the group comfortably. A conference room is a typical setting; classrooms and private rooms in a restaurant, are also frequently used. A focus group session may run about 1.5 to 2 hours. The most important thing about the setting is that it is a permissive environment, one in which the participants feel free to express their opinions and thoughts without inhibition and in which a “synergistic” conversation can take place, with participants’ comments sparking comments by others.

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Questions, Answers and Analysis

The questions asked, recording answers and analyzing the data must also be planned out by the researcher:

The questions that are asked.

As with an interview, the questions to be asked of a focus group have to be planned. Depending on the scope of the purpose of the focus group, there may be just a few (3-5), broad questions or more numerous (8-10), specific questions. The sequence of questions should be planned and may run from more general to very specific and include introductory questions to allow the participants to get to know each other a bit. Among the mix of questions are the “key” questions – those that are intended to solicit the most important information for the research purpose. If multiple moderators are going to conduct different focus groups for the same research project, then having a procedures guide may be necessary to assure consistency across the groups.

Recording the answers.

Many researchers who utilize focus groups employ an assistant moderator to help record responses, including operating any recording equipment that may be used. The assistant should also take notes, including quotes. At the end of the session, the assistant should provide a summary of the most important elements of the discussion. Participants should have the opportunity to clarify or comment on this summary.

Analyzing the data.

The main aspect of analysis is determining responses that speak to the research plan and questions. As the information is reviewed, the researcher looks for themes, both within answers to particular questions and answers across all questions. If multiple focus groups are held, then responses and themes are compared across groups. (The responses from one group can also affect what questions are asked to future groups; that is, the researcher may modify the questions asked to future groups based on responses from earlier group members.) Finally, the information collected in the interviews can be used in conjunction with other measures to make decisions.

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