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Example 1: The focus group disaster

This focus group was supposed to talk about health needs in the community. There were supposed to be eight of them, one for each ward in the city. The city council representatives, one per ward, were supposed to help get their constituents out. But only two meetings actually got off the ground, which tells you that community health needs were not exactly a council priority.

The meeting I went to was held in a function room at a popular local restaurant, on one of the coldest nights of the year, as it turned out. I'd say 20 or so souls wandered in. The room was very big and dark. People scattered themselves around -- you could hardly see some of them. The local city council rep did show up, and a couple of other familiar faces. And a lot of them were talkers, so for the few citizens that happened to be there, you could see that they were not going to get into a talking contest with the city council reps, so they gravitated to dark corners and kept quiet. I don't think they really knew much of what was going on anyway.

The meeting was sponsored by the local hospital, though they brought in an outside facilitator. But in this community, the reputation of the hospital was not the greatest (which, to the hospital's credit, was why these groups were occurring in the first place.) But people didn't seem very trusting of what was going on. They didn't talk easily. At least a couple of them looked intimidated; they weren't going to stand up and tell the hospital what to do.

The facilitator did a pretty good job, but probably worked harder than he should have had to. The members in this focus group weren't exactly forthcoming. To get ideas and opinions out of them wasn't quite like pulling teeth, but close. A couple of ideas did leak out. You couldn't say the meeting was really bad, yet it wasn't exactly warm and cozy. You can't overcome all the history and distrust in a single meeting....


Where there is previous adverse history to overcome, the sponsors need to take extra steps to overcome it -- for example, by personal invitations ahead of time, personal welcomes at the door, personal thank-yous and follow-ups. The group itself might have been well led, but this kind of personal attention to detail would probably have encouraged people to speak more freely, and strengthened the overall outcome.

The setting of the meeting is also very important. It's usually best to seat people in a circle, or semi-circle, where they can see each other and which reinforces a sense of equality. Whatever you do, no hiding in dark corners!

Example #2: The successful focus group

We put together a focus group to talk about how to improve housing for people living with HIV and AIDS. All the group members were HIV-positive themselves; some had an AIDS diagnosis. Of course, we didn't call it a "focus group." That would have scared people off. We just called it a "group discussion," something like that.

We invited about a dozen people who had been working to improve local policy and improve local AIDS services. We knew them ahead of time. They knew us, which was good. And we offered to pay them, $10.00 for coming to a one-hour meeting -- not all that much, but mainly a gesture of respect -- not that they couldn't use the money.

Well, they came. I think out of about a dozen we asked, 11 showed up. And, believe me, we didn't have to work very hard to get them to speak up. You say, "What do you think...?" and start writing. We hardly had to ask another question for the whole next hour.

These focus group members, "consumers," with poor education, low incomes, lots of drug and jail histories, were very passionate, very articulate, and generally right on target on housing issues. Should I have been surprised? No, but I was anyway, a little. They didn't need any prompting from me, and hardly any guidance, except to serve up a new question at the right moment, and maybe to steer them back to the question every once in a while, because some of them tended to get so heated up they would swerve off the road.

I didn't have a recorder with me. So I took notes myself, which was probably a mistake, since it's always hard to write and lead at the same time. But I think I got the main points down. I sat down to fill out the notes soon after the meeting, so I wouldn't forget.

The group had a long list of good ideas. We were able to put one or two of them into practice locally. Is that a good batting average? No. Why wasn't it higher? Because people with HIV and AIDS don't have political power. And because the social service bureaucracy, even the AIDS bureaucracy, is slow to change. But I still think the experience was worthwhile....


This seemed like a useful focus group. How could it have been more useful? Maybe by running it for more than an hour, and paying more attention to recording and writing out the results. But especially by working harder to implement those results. Using the results is a crucial part of the overall process. As in needs assessment surveys, thinking about how to use the possible results needs to take place at the very beginning.)

Are there other ways you would have conducted either of these groups differently?

Bill Berkowitz