Focus Groups

In essence, focus groups are interviews, but of six to ten people at the same time. They can be a very quick, relatively inexpensive way of sounding out peopleʼs attitudes and views.

Focus groups can help you discover what people really think and feel about any aspect of what you do, generate ideas for new services and help you gauge reactions to any planned changes in services. They are perfect for helping you provide equitable services because they can reveal the diversity and range of views among your client groups, help to find what seldom heardgroups think and give a voice to people who don't usually participate or get heard. They can help you design good survey questions and to understand your survey findings properly. In the right circumstances they can be used for discussing sensitive subjects. Before adopting this approach, consider whetherthis is the best method of achieving your objectives.

Focus groups linked with in-depth interviews tend to be conducted as one element of a project and will often take place within wider consultation approaches, e.g. used with workshop sessions or to help develop questionnaires.

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How to do it

Preparation

  • Identify the major objective of the meeting.
  • Carefully develop five or six questions (see below).
  • Plan your session (see below).
  • Call potential members to invite them to the meeting. Send them a follow-up invitation with a proposed agenda, session time and list of questions for group discussion.
  • Plan to provide a copy of the report from the session to each member and let them know you will do this.
  • About three days before the session, call each member to remind them to attend.

Developing Questions

  • Develop five or six questions. The session should last 1–2 hours.
  • Always first ask yourself what exactly it is that you need to know; e.g. do you need to know whether a new proposal will be acceptable to local people; or do you need to know how people prioritise options or how they view the pros and cons of a complex issue?Focus groups are basically multiple interviews. Therefore, many of the same guidelines for conducting focus groups are similar to those for conducting interviews.

Planning the Session

  • Scheduling – plan meetings to be 1–2 hours long. Over lunch may be a very good time for people to find time to attend.
  • Setting and refreshments – hold sessions in a venue where people will feel relaxed. For example a community-based setting is best if talking to members of the public. Set out chairs so that all members can see each other. Provide name tags for members. Provide refreshments if the session is held over lunch time.
  • Agenda – consider the following agenda: welcome, review of agenda, review of goal of the meeting, agree the ground rules, introductions, questions and answers, confirm feedback and next steps.
  • Membership – focus groups are usually conducted with six to ten members who have something in common, for example similar age group, community of interest or geography. Attempt to select members who don't know each other.
  • There are a variety of methods for selecting and recruiting participants, for example by advertising, random selection from the electoral roll, at a service point such as a GP surgery or out-patient clinic. You may wish to take professional advice on this. Be clear about the people it would be appropriate to involve. Initial recruitment involves identifying a large number of people and finding out their social characteristics, and their knowledge of and initial views on the subject. Planning of the focus groups then involves deciding which groups to have in order to explore the subject. The more similar a group is in terms of age, sex, social class, the easier communication is likely to be. From the outset it must be clear whether the need is for groups which are representative of the whole population, or for people in particular situations or with particular experiences.
  • Plan to record the session with either an audio or audio–video recorder. Don't count on your memory. If this isn't practical, involve a co-facilitator who is there to take notes.

Facilitating the Questions

  • The goal of the facilitation is collecting useful information to meet the aims of the meeting.
  • Introduce yourself and the co-facilitator and/or note taker (if used).
  • Explain that you wish to record the session, ask for everyone’s permission to do so and inform the group that the tape will be erased/destroyed after its contents have been transcribed.
  • Carry out the agenda (see 'agenda' above).
  • Carefully word each question before that question is addressed by the group.
  • Allow the group a few minutes for each member to carefully record their answers.
  • Then, facilitate discussion around the answers to each question.
  • After each question is answered, carefully reflect back a summary of what you heard (the note taker may do this).
  • Ensure even participation. If one or two people are dominating the meeting, then call on others.
  • When closing the session go back over the key points raised, tell participants that they will receive a copy of the report generated from their answers and thank them for coming. If there will be a report arising from the focus group’s discussions, arrangements should be made to provide a copy to the participants.

Immediately after the Session

  • Check that the tape recorder, if used, worked throughout the session.
  • Clarify your written notes where needed, ensure pages are numbered, augment and/or amend any notes that don't make sense.
  • Write down any observations made during the session; for example where did the session occur and when, what was the nature of participation in the group?
  • Were there any surprises during the session?

Pros

  • This is an efficient way of obtaining a great deal of information.
  • Participants can explore ideas and views in depth.
  • Groups whose views are not normally heard can be targeted.
  • Some people may feel more able to speak in a focus group than in a more formal situation.

Cons

  • Participants may feel that they need either to conform to the wider group view or to give positive comments to staff if they are present.
  • There should also be a one-to-one option for people who do not wish to speak infront of the whole group.

Resources

  • Cost of the facilitator and note taker (see Top Tips) if there is no internal capacity
  • Venue and catering
  • Stationery
  • Reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses of lay participants. Sometimes cash or vouchers are offered to participants in recognition of their time.

Top Tips

  • Have ground rules. It is critical that all members participate as much as possible, while the session is moved along and useful information is generated. Because the session is often a one-time occurrence, it is useful to have a few, short ground rules that sustain participation, yet do so with focus. Consider the following ground rules: a) keep focused; b) maintain momentum; c) everyone should respect one another's views; there are no right and wrong answers; d) obtain closure on questions.
  • Sometimes participants are not immediately forthcoming, so it is sensible to think ahead about how to encourage them to contribute. Effective facilitation is important in this regard.
  • You should decide in advance whether or not you will go ahead if only one or two people turn up. (It is usual to go ahead anyway and record the numbers attending as part of the report.)
  • It is advisable to take manual notes in case any participant objects to the tape recording after the process has started.

Sources and Further Information

Some of this information was first published in Rod's Reflections. To sign up to receive your own free subscription go to Link opens in a new windowRod Laird's website.

Other sources:

  • Barbour, R.S. and Kitzinger, J. (1999) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, theory and practice. London: Sage.
  • Green, J. (2005) 'Focus Groups and other Group Methods', in Green, J. and Brown, J. Principles of Social Research. Berkshire: Open University Press, ch. 7.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1996) 'Focus Groups', in Pope, C. and Mays, N. Qualitative Research in Health Care. London: BMJ, ch. 3.
  • Morgan, D.L. (1997) Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. London: Sage.