How to plan and run a focus group

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How to plan and run a focus group

Focus groups aren’t just a get together. They are a special type of group, with a special structure, used to get information from a clearly defined group of people. You can’t get information from focus groups that you can measure numerically (quantitative data) but if you do them in the right way, for the right purpose, you can get high quality, rich, descriptive information about people’s thoughts and experiences (qualitative data).

Focus groups can also be one of the most interesting ways of doing research because they are always surprising. Focus groups are designed to share control of the conversation with the participants, and that means they can generally respond in any way to the questions you ask; you will nearly always hear things that surprise you.

Focus groups aren’t:

  • a meeting
  • a rally
  • a forum
  • a self-help circle.

Focus groups are:

  • a group of 6–12 people
  • people who are similar in one or more ways, or who have an interest in the same issue (eg they all have young children, or they all live in a particular area
  • a facilitated discussion
  • a discussion on a clearly defined subject
  • a structured exercise to get information about the opinions of the focus group members.

Did you know? There are two stories about how focus groups began. One says they were developed during WW2 as a way of assessing soldiers’ morale. The other says they were developed just after WW2 to assess audience responses to radio shows. The fact that there are two creation stories probably reflects the popularity of focus groups with social scientists AND marketing experts.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to plan and run a focus group.

Is a focus group the right tool for you to use?

The first step is to work out whether a focus group can give you the information you want. Click here to learn more about when focus groups are useful, and what they aren’t good for.

Focus groups can give you some information about the outcomes of projects or services. The information will be subjective (that is, a reflection of individual’s personal views and experiences) and it will be descriptive (not something that can be measured). But the information can give you a good sense of whether your clients or other stakeholders are satisfied with your service or program, what they think is working and why. You will probably need to gather other outcomes information, but focus group information is extremely useful to add to the mix. For example, you can present focus group information as ‘the story behind the numbers’.

If you decide to run a focus group, be clear about its purpose. That will help you be clear about who to invite to the group and what questions you will ask.

Prepare your questions

Next, questions. Don’t prepare more than 10. Try to make sure they flow logically from one idea to the next.

It’s really important that your questions sound natural and conversational during the focus group. Don’t ask them as if you are asking a survey. The best questions are SOO good (SOO = Short, Open-ended and One-at-a-time).

An example of an open-ended question is ‘what was your experience of working with the counsellor?’ Closed questions ask for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. A closed question is ‘was working with the counsellor good?’

Click here to see how to order questions for a focus group.

Find your participants

You may think that inviting a group of diverse people to a focus group will help you to hear a wide range of views but unfortunately focus groups don’t work like that. People tend to censor themselves if they are in a group of people who are different from themselves in terms of power, status, jobs, education, income or personal characteristics.

To get the best quality information you need to invite people who are alike in some way, ‘similar’ according to some criterion. You need to decide what that criterion is. Your decision needs to be based on what type of community you are working with, and the topic of the focus group.

If you need to get a wide range of views it will be necessary to hold a number of focus groups.

Focus groups have a high dropout rate. Some researchers advise inviting twice as many people as you hope to have attend! Incentives certainly help, especially food and reimbursements for travel and parking costs. You can offer money or a voucher for attending but the offer must not be so significant that it might influence someone’s decision to attend against their better judgement.  Here is more information on How to meet ethical standards concerns when you gather outcomes information from clients.

You also need to get signed consent forms from people who are participating. Here is more information on How to get informed consent to gather information from clients.

Running your focus groups

Here are some tips for running your focus group:

  • You need a facilitator who is experienced and aware of their responsibilities. You may need to engage and pay someone to do this. 
  • Ideally, you need a second person as well as an observer. The second person’s job is to take notes as comprehensively as they can. They are also the ‘odd job’ person – it’s their job to make sure the recorder is working, deal with unexpected children, people arriving late etc. The second person should not interact with the group.
  • If you can, record the session. With luck the conversation will flow and your note taker will be hard pressed to keep up. This makes your recording a vital backup.
  • Don’t jump in after a participant finishes speaking; allow pauses after questions or comments. Some facilitators suggest a five second pause; this allows other participants to have the chance to speak. You want your participants to interact with each other.
  • Most focus groups go for 60 – 90 minutes. More than that is too long as people get too tired.
  • An effective focus group has good conversation; the facilitator plays the difficult role of letting the conversation ebb and flow while keeping it on track.
  • The facilitator should write notes immediately after the focus group finishes; record their observations of the participants and their characteristics, the mood in the room and the key themes talked about. (And how the questions worked if you are going to do it again.)

Hint: if you have the facilitation skills, you can run focus groups via teleconference or video link. Face-to-face is easier though.

Hint: You can even run a focus group with people who do not interact or meet. To do this you interview each person separately. Anonymous summaries of each person’s perceptions or ideas are given to each other member for comment. This isn’t as spontaneous as a focus group but it does allow people to react to, and comment on, each other’s ideas. 1

Analyse and report on your data

The next work to do is to analyse the information that has been shared with you, and to work out how to report on it. To learn more about this, have a look at How to analyse and report on qualitative information (stories, focus groups and interviews.

Be accountable

Make sure you tell people in the focus group how the information you collect will be used, and let them know how they can see a copy of any report produced based on their information. People appreciate the effort you make to send them copies or invite them to launches.

  • 1. This is called ‘Nominal Group Technique’. It is recommended for special conditions such as: specialised groups of people who can’t be assembled at short notice; where there is a significant power differential between people; or where there is a high level of conflict or people’s views are very divided. (Stewart & Shamdasani 1990, cited in Marczak & Sewell n.d. Using focus groups for evaluation, University of Arizona.)