Guest article: How to conduct a successful focus group

This is a guest article by Dan O’Neill; I hope you’ll find it interesting and useful.

How to conduct a successful focus group

By Dan O’Neill

While focus group methodology is often discussed in the context of market research, it is also used in a variety of research fields. Focus groups have been used to gather data on a wide range of research topics including: attitudes towards tobacco, meat quality, farming, electronic resources, patient quality, solar technology, health and safety, property management, and many more.

If you’re thinking about conducting a focus group for your own research, below are some fundamental things you’ll need to do to prepare for this type of study.

  1. Select the right focus group members

Finding the right people for your research study can be difficult, but getting the selections right is crucial. The members selected must be chosen on the basis of their potential contributions, so it’s important to consider what you wish to learn from the group. There are two types of focus groups: homogenous and heterogeneous. Homogenous focus groups consist of members from similar backgrounds or those who have something in common (e.g. a focus group of criminal lawyers, or toolmakers.) Heterogeneous groups consist of people from different backgrounds with an interest in common, e.g. a variety of building professionals discussing school construction.

Focus groups typically range from six to twelve members, Best practices vary on what the minimum and maximum should be. However, more than twelve is generally difficult to manage and control, and could cause the moderator difficulty.

It is also common and good practice to offer an incentive (e.g. a meal, or another token of appreciation.)

  1. Be sure to adhere to ethical protocol

A statement describing the purpose of the research and the focus group procedure and process, needs to be signed off on by participants in order to comply with ethical protocol.. This requires careful drafting. The significant questions are: Do members wish to remain anonymous? How long will you keep records of sensitive information? Where will information be stored? Members need to be informed and they need to consent to the terms of the study.

  1. Choose a patient but effective moderator

You’ll need a moderator who can control the group and stop individuals from “hijacking” the conversation or interrupting. The moderator must remain impartial and prevent personal bias from interfering with discussion. This is why I would not recommend the researcher to act as moderator, as they’re too close to the research.

  1. Select a safe and secure environment

The discussion needs to happen in a safe and secure area. It’s wise to avoid interruptions as they can interfere with good data collection. A room that makes group members feel comfortable is important, with easy access to refreshments and restrooms.

  1. Record the session

Taking written notes is not adequate, so you’ll really need to record your session. I would recommend having a note-taker and also taking observational notes during the session. I would also recommend using audio recording equipment, as some members may feel uncomfortable being recorded on video. Make sure there is a minimum of three hours recording capacity and that the machine picks up the sound from the required radius.

  1. Prepare a script

Prior to the session, you’ll need to create a script made up of carefully-chosen questions. I would recommend using prompts after each question to get more information in case the answers are insufficient. Questions are typically broken down as follows:

  • Introductory questions;
  • Transition questions;
  • Main questions;
  • Summary questions;
  • Concluding questions.
  1. Watch the time

After two hours, people can get restless. I would not recommend a period of more than two and a half hours for a session if you can avoid it. Also, be sure to allow time for breaks as needed.

  1. Provide refreshments

Regardless of whether a token of appreciation or enticement is given, refreshments are a must. Water, tea and coffee should be available on arrival, and throughout the meeting. Depending on the situation, the meeting duration, and the value of the data, a meal may also need to be provided. This is what makes focus groups more expensive than questionnaires and single interviews. If planning a meal, make sure to consider dietary requirements.

  1. Ask yourself this series of questions before you begin.

Focus group methodology has been criticised with regards to what it can offer in market research compared to individual interviews, etc. However, I have found it to be a useful method for gathering data. Still, it takes a lot of preparatory work to undertake successfully, so I’d recommend asking yourself the following questions before you begin: What do I need this for? What are the alternatives? How many sessions will this require? How many groups will I need to develop a learning curve? What will be required? What are the costs? How will I analyse the data?

These are the main questions that need answering prior to embarking on your focus group study. Good luck!

Recommended reading:

LIAMPUTTONG, P. 2011. Focus group methodology: principle and practice, London, SAGE.

MASSEY, O. T. 2011. A proposed model for the analysis and interpretation of focus groups in evaluation research. Evaluation and Program Planning, 34, 21-28.

 

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