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  • What is a focus group?

  • How are focus groups different from regular "groups"?

  • Why are focus groups used?

  • When should you use a focus group?

  • How do you run a focus group?

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a trained leader. It is used to learn more about opinions on a designated topic, and then to guide future action.

Examples:

  • A focus group of parents of pre-schoolers meets to discuss child care needs. Parents share their views on local child care programs, and on what could be done to improve them.
  • A focus group of senior citizens meets at the new senior center. What do they think of the programs being offered? What are their own suggestions and ideas?
  • An agency wants to open a group home for mentally handicapped adults in a quiet residential area. It convenes a group of prospective neighbors. What are their concerns? Can this work?

How are focus groups different from regular "groups"?

A focus group is different in three basic ways:

  • The main difference is that it is focused. The group has a specific discussion topic. The group's task is to stay on it, and not wander all over the place.
  • The group has a trained leader, or facilitator. The leader's job is to keep the group on course.
  • The group's composition and the group discussion are carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment, in which people are free to talk openly. Members are actively encouraged to express their own opinions, and also respond to other members, as well as to questions posed by the leader.

Because focus groups are structured and directed, but also expressive, they can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time.

Why are focus groups used?

Focus groups help people learn more about group or community opinions and needs. In this respect, they are similar to needs assessment surveys.

But needs assessment surveys typically have written, closed-ended, relatively narrow questions which are quantitatively scored. The person being surveyed often responds with a numerical rating, rather than with a verbal statement. Such surveys can be very useful; but they usually can't capture all that a person is thinking or feeling.

Responses in a focus group, on the other hand, are typically spoken, open-ended, relatively broad, and qualitative. They have more depth, nuance, and variety. Nonverbal communications and group interactions can also be observed. Focus groups can therefore get closer to what people are really thinking and feeling, even though their responses may be harder -- or impossible -- to score on a scale.

Which is better? Both of these methods are useful. And both can be used together, to complement each other. Which should you use in a specific situation? That depends upon your own needs and purposes, and the resources available to you.

When should you use a focus group?

  • When you are considering the introduction of a new program or service.
  • When your main concern is with depth of opinion, or shading of opinion, rather than simply with whether people agree or disagree.
  • When you want to ask questions that can't easily be asked or answered on a written survey.
  • When you want to supplement the knowledge you can gain from written surveys.
  • When you know, or can find someone, who is an experienced and skilled group leader.
  • When you have the time, knowledge, and resources to recruit a willing group of focus group participants.

Try this exercise:

Here are several situations when you might want to know more about community opinions before taking action. How useful would a focus group be in each case?

  • A new strain of flu is going around. Half the town seems to be catching it. What should be done about it?
  • A wave of break-ins has hit a nearby neighborhood. How can this be stopped?
  • A new playground is being planned. What features should go into it?

Our viewpoints:

  • Controlling the flu is not a matter of citizen opinion, but rather of medical facts, and of public health prevention and treatment. A focus group is probably not helpful here.
  • Increased police presence may help; but a structured discussion among neighbors might hit upon other useful solutions. A focus group could be quite worthwhile.
  • Citizen input is definitely called for here. A focus group could be an ideal way for finding it out.

A focus group is not for every social situation. But it can be useful in many situations where action should be guided by public opinion.

The Pros and Cons of Groups

Should you collect your opinions from groups, or from individuals? The focus groups are, of course, groups. Most surveys, though, cover one person at a time.

One advantage of focus groups is depth and complexity of response, as mentioned before. And group members can often stimulate new thoughts for each other, which might not have otherwise occurred.

But there are some downsides, too.

For example, focus groups usually take more time per respondent than individual surveys -- because the group has to be recruited, and because the group itself takes time. Some group members might feel hesitant about speaking openly. And the focus group leader may sometimes need to be paid.

Of course, it's also possible to combine the advantages of both methods, and interview one person at a time in depth. But this can be time-consuming, and take more resources than you have on hand.

Consider your own situation. How do these factors trade off? What is the best solution for you?

How do you run a focus group?

Before you begin

A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a trained leader. It is used to learn more about opinions on a designated topic, and then to guide future action. The group's composition and the group discussion should be carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment, so that participants feel free to talk openly and give honest opinions. Since participants are actively encouraged to not only express their own opinions, but also respond to other members and questions posed by the leader, focus groups offer a depth, nuance, and variety to the discussion that would not be available through surveys. Additionally, because focus groups are structured and directed, but also expressive, they can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time. In short, focus groups are a good way to gather in-depth information about a community’s thoughts and opinions on a topic

Recheck your goals. Ask:

  • "Why do I want to conduct a focus group?"
  • "Why am I doing this?"
  • "What do I hope to learn?"

Consider other methods.

Are you planning to use other methods for learning about opinions as well?

In other words, so far: Think before you start, look before you leap.

  • If yes, which ones, and why?
  • If no, is this the single best method to use to find out what you want?

Find a good leader.

This is not a casual matter: Your leader will determine the success of your group. What kind of leader do you want? Probably someone who:

Take a careful look around. Perhaps you can find the right leader within your own organization. It's possible you can do the job yourself (but don't overestimate [or underestimate] your own abilities.) Depending on the situation, you might consider looking for someone outside your organization, someone that specializes in facilitating these kinds of groups.

  • Has experience facilitating groups
  • Knows something about the topic
  • Will relate well to the focus group participants
  • Will work together with you to give you the outcomes you want

Find a recorder.

A small but important point, often neglected. You want to make sure people's ideas don't get lost. Someone should be writing down what is said, in the same way as taking minutes at a meeting. Arrange for this in advance. (Alternatively, you can tape-record, with the group's permission. This will take more time -- to transcribe the tape, and interpret the transcription-- but you will have a more complete, accurate, and permanent record.)

Decide who should be invited.

Ideally, those invited should be a representative sample of those whose opinions you are concerned about.

Suppose you're concerned about the opinions of public housing tenants. You would then want to spread your invitations across the different public housing facilities in your community -- not just the best, or the worst, or the most vocal.

Or suppose you are concerned about the opinions of Main Street shopkeepers. Get a complete list. Select a representative group, for example by size, type, or whether they have local or outside ownership. You probably want to hear from all kinds of businesses; so make sure you do.

You could even pull the names out of a hat. (This approaches a "random sample.") Or, better yet, if you had time, you could run several different groups, to include more people, and more different kinds of people.

Decide about incentives.

That is, should you offer an incentive for people to participate? Maybe not. In that case, why should people come? What's in it for them?

Possibly people will come just because they want to help. Or because they think they will meet other interesting people, or learn something, or just have fun. Maybe the novelty of the experience itself will be a motivator. And maybe all these reasons are true. (Or at least people believe them.)

But maybe those reasons aren't enough, and some other incentive is called for. Money is one; sometimes focus group members get paid, even a small amount. (Focus group leaders may get paid, too.) If you can afford this, consider it. If you can't, then think about other possible incentives: food and drink (more than chips and soda?); public recognition; something to take home; a later training opportunity. What will do the job?

Decide on the meeting particulars.

Specifically:

Pin these down before you start signing people up.

  • What day?
  • What place?
  • What time?
  • How long?
  • How many groups?

Prepare your questions.

When you go into the group, go in prepared. Don't wing it. Instead, you should make up (and write out in advance) a list of topics and questions you want to ask. This doesn't mean you will recite your questions from your prepared list, one-at-a-time. Your question list is a guide, rather than an exact script; but have that guide with you.

Below are some examples of general questions. These apply largely to groups discussing a current program or service, but they can be adjusted for planned programs, as well as for groups dealing with other concerns. The precise language and order of presentation will depend on your topic and group, but some of these questions may be adapted to your own needs.

  • "What are some of your thoughts about what's going on now?"
  • "Would you say you are satisfied with the current situation, with the way things are going on?"
  • (If so) "What are you satisfied about? Why is that?" (Or, "What's going well...?")
  • "Are there things you are dissatisfied with, that you would like to see changed?" (Or, "What's not going well...?")
  • (If so) "What are they? Why is that? How should they change? What kinds of things would you like to see happen?"
  • "How about this particular aspect (of the topic). What do you think about that?"
  • Repeat for different aspects of the topic, with variations in style. For example, if the main focus group topic was "community policing," some key aspects to cover might be visibility, sensitivity, interaction, respect, etc.
  • "Some people have said that one way to improve X is to do Y.
  • Do you agree with this?' (Or, "How do you feel about that?")
  • "Are there other recommendations that you have, or suggestions you would like to make?"
  • "Are there other things you would like to say before we wind up?"
  • Some "probes", or follow-ups", designed to get more information on a given question:
    • "Can you say more about that?"
    • "Can you give an example?"
    • "Jane says X. How about others of you. What do you think?"
    • "How about you, Joe. [Or, "you folks in the corner over there...."] Do you have some thoughts on this?"
    • "Does anyone else have some thoughts on that?"

Recruit your members.

Call them up. Write them a letter. Or find them.

Remember:

  • Other things equal, personal contact works best.

  • Stress your benefits. Why should people come?

Double-check.

Review the arrangements. Is everything ready to go?

"Preparation is ___% of success." (We don't know the exact percentage, but we do know it's high!)

When the group meets

Conduct the group

A common sequence of events for many focus groups goes something like this: (The leader usually takes responsibility for carrying them out.)

  • Thank people for coming.
  • Review the purpose of the group, and the goals of the meeting. Set the stage.
  • Go over the flow of the meeting -- how it will proceed, and how the members can contribute. Lay out the ground rules. Encourage open participation.
  • Set the tone. This is important, because probably few of your members will have been in a focus group before.
  • Ask an opening question. This could be a very general question ("What are your general thoughts about X?"), or something more specific. Both choices are justifiable; and both types of questions might be asked before the group ends.
  • Make sure that all opinions on that question get a chance to be heard. How do you do this?

Some common techniques

  • Summarize what you think you have heard, and ask if the group agrees
  • Phrase the same question in a different way
  • Ask if anyone else has any comments on that question
  • Ask a follow-up question
  • Look around the room, and make brief eye contact, especially with those who may not have spoken

Reminder #1: Be sure to record. If the group is not being tape-recorded, someone should be writing the key points down.

Reminder #2: Of course, the leader's job is to elicit opinion, and not judge it. All opinions should be supported. Judgments come later.

  • Ask your next question -- and proceed with other questions in the same general manner. The phrasing of the questions, the follow-ups, the ordering of the questions, and how much time to spend on each one are points that the leader will have to decide -- sometimes on the spot. An experienced leader will be able to do this. This is why you have spent time looking for one!
  • When all your questions have been asked, and before the group ends, ask if anyone has any other comments to make. This can be an effective way of gathering other opinions that have not yet been voiced.
  • Tell the members about any next steps that will occur, and what they can expect to happen now.
  • Don't forget to thank the group for coming!

After the meeting

Look at the data

If you have tape-recorded, make a transcript. If not, make a written summary from the group notes. But in any case, look closely at the information you have collected.

In some cases, you can devise and use a coding system to "score" the data and count the number of times a particular theme is expressed. Experience helps here. But whether you do this or not, try to have more than one person review the results independently. (Because even the best of us have our biases.) Then come together to compare your interpretations and conclusions.

  • What patterns emerge?
  • What are the common themes?
  • What new questions arise?
  • What conclusions seem true?

Share results with the group.

They gave you their time. The least you can do is to give them some feedback -- it's an obligation that you have. This can be done by mail, phone, or email if you'd like. Sometimes it's even possible to bring the group back for a second session, to review results, verify their accuracy, and/or explore other themes.

And note: Perhaps members have now become more interested in the issue, and would like to get more involved. Consider offering them an opportunity to do so. A focus group, indirectly, can be a recruiting tool.

Use the results.

Of course, this isn't part of the group itself - at least not directly. But collecting useful information was the reason you wanted to do a focus group in the first place. Now you've got what you wanted. You have the opportunity, and perhaps also the responsibility, to put it to use. You can improve the situation that originally motivated you, and made you think about a focus group at the very beginning.

In Summary

A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a trained leader. It is used to learn more about opinions on a designated topic, and then to guide future action. The group's composition and the group discussion should be carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment, so that participants feel free to talk openly and give honest opinions. Since participants are actively encouraged to not only express their own opinions, but also respond to other members and questions posed by the leader, focus groups offer a depth, nuance, and variety to the discussion that would not be available through surveys. Additionally, because focus groups are structured and directed, but also expressive, they can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time. In short, focus groups are a good way to gather in-depth information about a community’s thoughts and opinions on a topic.

Contributor 
Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., and Weiss, L. (1981). Building united judgement: A handbook for consensus decision making. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution. (Available from the Center at P.O. Box 2156, Madison, WI 53701-2156).

Cox, F. M. (1995). "Community problem solving: A guide to practice with comments." In Rothman, J., Erlich, J. L., and Tropman, J. E. (eds.), Strategies of community intervention (5th ed., pp. 146-162). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Dale, D., and Mitiguy, N. (1978). Planning for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Citizen Involvement Training Project.

Johnson, D. W., and Johnson, F. P. (1997). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lawson, L. G., Donant, F. D., and Lawson, J. D. (1982). Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Mondross, J. B., and Wilson, S. M. (1994). Organizing for power and empowerment. New York: Columbia University Press.

Online Resources

Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews, by Richard A. Krueger, is concise resource with specific steps and tips on conducting group interviews.

Toolkit for Conducting Focus Groups, provided by Omni, is a great resource intended to assist in conducting focus groups and enhance one’s facilitation skills. It contains two sections: Research Basics and Focus Groups. The manual begins with a brief introduction to this research project, contact information for technical assistance, and information deemed essential for carrying out quality research. The second part contains information on how to facilitate focus groups, including how to plan for and conduct focus groups, how to handle difficult situations, and guidelines for effective facilitation and note-taking. In addition, it provides the appropriate focus group forms, including a verbal consent script, which will also act as a sign-in sheet for the focus groups.

Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group is provided by Eliot & Associates. In this guide you will find checklists and samples of items such as focus group questions, recruitment flyer, invitee tracking form, introductory remarks, sample consent form, data analysis format, and synthesized report format. This is another excellent and detailed example.

Introduction to Conducting Focus Groups, by NOAA Coastal Services Center, is a comprehensive introduction to key elements and practices that will increase the success of a focus group effort. Topics covered in this publication include focus group basics, preparing for the focus group, developing effective questions, planning the focus group session and analyzing the data.