Focus Groups

Focus groups are discussions with a group of people about a topic, led by a facilitator. Focus groups are well suited for the collection of qualitative information from people about their thoughts and experiences. In contrast to interviews, the questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. This group setting might make participants more comfortable, and allow them to be inspired by and build on other participants’ thoughts. On the other hand, the group setting might also make people less comfortable and more shy to share their own opinions.

Things to prepare before the focus group

  • It is a good idea to have two researchers conduct the focus group together – one as the facilitator and one responsible for recording, taking notes, and other logistical issues.
  • Who should be the participants and how will you group them? For example, will the group consist of different kinds of stakeholders, such as students from different grades, or students and teachers, or one type of participant at a time? This depends on your research question and on how comfortable you think the participants will be in the group setting. 
  • How big should the groups be? The larger the group, the longer the discussion will take and the more difficult it could get to facilitate the discussion and allow everyone to speak. Good sizes are at least four people up to ten people.
  • How will you audio or video record the focus group discussion? Which devices will you use for recordings? Make sure the devices work and have enough battery power. 
  • Prepare a focus group protocol for the facilitator. The protocol should include a list of questions you aim to ask, as well as notes and advice for the facilitator regarding additional prompts and reactions depending on where the discussion is going. It makes sense to start the discussion by introducing the topic and asking some general questions to get everyone talking, and then move to more specific questions. Avoid “leading questions”, these are questions that give the participants a hint of what your own opinions are or what you want them to answer.
  • Practice the protocol and your facilitation skills with a few people and make adjustments to the protocol if necessary. The discussion questions should be easy to understand and the discussion should not take too long, e.g. not more than 60-90 min depending on group size.
  • When and where will you conduct the focus group? Contact the participants to agree on a time for the discussion. Find a place that is large enough for the group size and has enough seats, is comfortable for the group and does not have too many distractions.
  • Make sure you inform your participants about the purpose of the focus group discussion, how long it will be, and get their consent for the recording of their data before you start the focus group.

Things to pay attention to during the focus group

  • At the beginning introduce yourself and the purpose of the discussion and thank everyone for participating. Explain that the discussion will be recorded and ask everyone for their consent/ the signed consent form. Allow people to ask any questions regarding your research or regarding the discussion.
  • Explain some rules for the discussion, for example, that everyone is encouraged to share their honest opinions, and that there are no right or wrong answers.
  • During the discussion, does everyone have the chance to speak? Encourage people to speak, and encourage people to add different points of view. For example, by asking “Does someone have a different opinion?”, “Has everyone had this experience, or a different experience?” If appropriate, you can also use rounds, meaning that everyone in the group shares their ideas regarding a question or topic, one by one. If you use rounds, explain this technique at the beginning of the discussion. 
  • As the facilitator, stay neutral and do not share your own opinion and do not reinforce a certain point of view over another. Your role is to listen with interest (e.g. through body language) and to ask questions.
  • Find the right balance between allowing a group dynamic to form, and keeping the discussion focused. 
  • You could use a flipchart or board to record main ideas from the discussion. This can help keep the discussion focused on the main issues and questions. You can also record ideas that are important but not relevant to the discussion, so you can show interest but keep the discussion focused, and come back to these ideas later.
  • Allow participants time to think about their responses after you have posed a question or after someone in the group has spoken.
  • At the end, thank everyone again for participating. It is a good idea to remind them what you will do next in your project and how you will share your results with them.

Things to reflect on after the focus group

  • What went well, what went not so well?
  • What might be changed, added, or omitted in the focus group protocol?
  • Should the location where you conducted the focus group be changed next time?
  • What should be done differently in your interaction with the participant group or in your facilitation style?

Analyzing focus group data

  • Focus group data is largely qualitative data, it is analyzed using qualitative data analysis methods.
  • Audio recordings need to be turned into text format by typing them up (this is called transcribing). If you have written notes, then type them up into a digital text format.
  • Often you can use your focus group protocol as the structure and analyze or summarize the data by question or theme.

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