Focus groups: suggestions for practice

Comfortable, accessible, safe spaces are required to conduct focus groups. Focus group organizers should consider the physical or digital environment for their focus group and check for barriers to participation including time the focus group is scheduled, technology required (web conferencing) to join the discussion, costs or other hindrances to physical meeting spaces (transportation, parking, wayfinding), and other signs or signals in the environment that send welcoming or unwelcoming messages. Appropriate seating should be available with good sight lines, etc. Focus groups often include refreshments (e.g. water, pizza, snacks) to put participants at ease and facilitate connections. Appropriate materials for refreshments as well as clearly marked restrooms should be provided.

Focus group participants should be instructed about any materials that the organizers might wish them to bring (e.g. screen shots, products of their work, writing utensils). 

Focus group moderators need their scripts, questions, and any “props” necessary for leading the discussion. Prompts might include images or other materials for participants to focus on or react to (e.g. screen shots, card sorts). 

Focus group notetakers may need video or audio recording equipment, technology (e.g., laptop, phone, tablet) or notepaper to record notes and impressions. In some cases, pre-prepared notes might be used (e.g. a checklist of common responses with space for new ideas or suggestions).  Structured, fill-in responses for notes can speed up notetaking; however, notetakers should take care that prepared notetaking tools allow for departures from the expected and do not prematurely “route” participant feedback into expected channels or categories.

If video or audio recordings are made; you may wish to transcribe the conversation. Transcription is time-consuming and can be costly and is not always necessary for augmenting notes taken during a focus group. No tools are required to conduct focus groups. Focus groups can be conducted face-to-face or by video conference. Should you wish to code transcribed conversations, specialized software such as NVivo and MAXQDA are options; likewise transcriptions can be coded using colored highlighters on a printed or digital version of the transcript, and a spreadsheet. Specialized software can be pricey and can have a high barrier to entry for use.

Further tips

  • Use both a moderator/facilitator and a notetaker/observer. The moderator should “run” the focus group; the notetaker should not attempt to participate, their sole job is to record the focus group proceedings. Both should be introduced to participants and their roles explained at the outset of the focus group session. 

  • Using moderators/notetakers from the organization that provides the services/systems under discussion may have a chilling effect on participant responses. In order to mitigate the tendency of participants to minimize or omit negative feedback, particularly to organizations/institutions that are not-for-profit or perceived as a public good, the moderators/notetakers should be affiliated with entities perceived as “neutral” and closely represent the participant population as much as possible.

  • Whether the focus group is structured or unstructured, focus group moderators should be prepared with 5-6 questions prior to the start of the session. Level of structure will dictate to what degree moderators may depart or extend those questions in response to participant engagement. Focus group questions should be piloted prior to use; feedback should be sought from individuals that are similar to expected participants to ensure questions are clearly stated, jargon free, not leading, etc. Moderators might also wish to have 2-3 variations of each question in case the initial question is unclear to participants. 

  • At the start of a focus group, moderators should begin with a confirmation of consent to participate and record (if applicable), an explanation of the purpose of the focus group, and clear instructions and timelines for engagement.

  • During the focus group, moderators must take care to keep the conversation on main points, actionable feedback, etc. rather than minutiae. 

  • Moderators must also avoid “leading” participant responses. Using more open-ended and/or sense-making questions than close-ended questions helps avoid “leading” the discussion.

  • At the close of a focus group, moderators should provide a review of the session, options for participant follow ups, and an expression of gratitude for participation. 

  • Soon after the focus group, the notetaker should check the recording, and if possible both the moderator and notetaker should create summaries, independently of each other, to capture their initial impressions and findings with regard to participants’ key issues of concerns, attitudes, beliefs or feelings, etc.

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