Overview

Focus groups are group discussions that involve facilitating and encouraging a group of participants to explore their opinions and feelings on a particular issue or experience.

One of the key features of the method is to capitalise on the communication and interaction among group participants. The facilitator creates a safe and respectful environment that encourages participants to share perceptions and points of view without pressuring them to agree.

Focus groups can be an effective way of collecting data from several people simultaneously, and they enable the researcher to gain a large amount of information in a short period of time. However, the evaluator should not treat them as though they are multiple one-on-one interviews. Even asking the same questions to the same person will likely get different responses if they are in part of a group. Focus groups are also one of the most prominent ways of gathering information on interactions between individuals and group dynamics.

Like interviews, focus groups generate qualitative data. They also take careful planning of questions and topics for discussion, about which a more detailed account can be found in the Asking Questions section.  These sessions can be designed to be highly structured, in which the researcher acts as a facilitator/moderator, or very unstructured, in which the researcher is almost an observer of the group conversation. 

Recording your Focus Group

In the past, information from focus was only recorded in note form. Today, however, high-quality digital recorders (both audio and visual) are relatively inexpensive, and are a popular method of recording information. If you are using an audio or visual recording, it is vital to obtain informed consent ahead of time.  You must also think carefully about data protection, storage, and how the recordings will be used in the future. See the Ethics section for more details on this topic.  

Selected methods and techniques

a)    Dual Moderator Focus Group. In duel moderator focus group, two moderators are used: One moderator ensures the smooth progression of the session, while the other moderator makes sure that all topics are covered.

b)    Two-way Focus Group. In two-way focus groups, one group watches another group answer the focus group questions. By hearing what another group thinks, this opens up more discussions and may lead to different conclusions

c)    Client-Participant Focus Group. This involves the ‘client’ (perhaps a project manager) sitting in on the focus group, either in secret or openly. This gives clients more control over the discussion.

d)    Mini Focus Groups. A regular-size focus group has six to eight participants, while a mini focus group uses three to five members. Depending on the participants and subject matter, a more intimate approach may be called for.

e)    Teleconference Focus Groups. Groups can meet though teleconferencing if it's geographically restrictive to gather all the participants together in one room. While not as effective as meeting in person, it may suffice in certain situations.

f)     Online Focus Groups. In online focus groups, all participating members are able to share information and responses via their computer screens. People participating in these groups can be divided into three groups: moderator, participant and observer.

 Benefits

  • Low cost
  • Allows data collection from multiple participants at once
  • Affords ability to hear similarities and differences in participants’ perspectives
  • Allows the collection of very rich information and views

Challenges

  • Scheduling a suitable time/location for all participants
  • Group dynamics can cause response bias
  • Moderator might be too dominant or too passive
  • Group member(s) may be too dominant (‘peacocking’) or very taciturn/passive
  • Disagreements within the group
  • Getting off topic
  • Running over time
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Resources

There are many good sources of introductory guidance on focus groups including tips for facilitators. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement provides one such introductory guide.