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How to... conduct a focus group

Options:     Print Version - How to... conduct a focus group, part 2 Print view

How to facilitate a focus group

Skills required

We shall be looking further down this page at the tasks of steering a focus group and framing questions, but in general terms the group leader needs to:

  • be objective, remembering that this is a research exercise and he or she should encourage equally material which does and does not support the hypothesis
  • be flexible, allowing free flowing discussion but ensuring that there is enough structure to cover key topics, and knowing the right point to intervene if someone is too domineering, or if the group is straying off the topic
  • be empathic and a good listener, able to put people at ease, and with the right social skills to be able to draw in someone who is shy, perhaps by looking at that person in an encouraging way
  • possess a combination of tact and assertiveness, able to project him or herself onto the group without dominating
  • possess the courage to stay with a silence if that silence can engender further thoughtful contribution.

Whether or not the researcher and the facilitator are the same person will depend on the project, but if they are it is all the more important to remember the above skills, and in particular to be objective.

The stages of group process

Like any group, focus groups are subject to certain collective behaviours. Drawing on research done on small groups, Helen Finch and Jane Lewis ("Focus groups" in Ritchie, J and Lewis, J. (Eds), 2003, Qualitative Research Practice, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA) describe five stages of the group process:

  1. Forming. At this stage, everyone is relatively tense and guarded, and concerned with inclusion.
  2. Storming. Relatively early on, tensions and disagreements begin to emerge. Data from this stage of the group discussion will not be very reliable.
  3. Norming. The group begins to settle down, observe ground rules, and cooperate.
  4. Performing. Here, the group's discussion is at its best and most interactive, the researcher can relax and let the group conduct itself.
  5. Adjourning. The group works towards an ending. Sometimes, there is also mourning, when people seem reluctant to leave.

The stages of a focus group

The facilitator needs to be aware of the different stages the focus group should go through, and how to conduct each stage.

Setting the scene and laying ground rules

As participants arrive, the facilitator should welcome them and thank them for coming. Once everybody is present and seated, the facilitator should provide a brief introduction outlining the purpose of research, laying ground rules (one person to talk at a time, all views welcome, confidentiality) and to stress that there is no hidden agenda, and that all views will be treated in confidence.

Next, each participant introduces themselves, giving name and a brief bit of background. The facilitator should make a spatial note of where people are sitting, which will serve as a useful aide memoire when looking at the session notes or listening to the recording.

The opening topic

The facilitator introduces the opening topic/question, which should be fairly general, and capable of generating discussion. Attempts should be made to make everyone contribute as a way of breaking into the group. It may be necessary for the facilitator to intervene quite a bit by asking questions, and generally keeping the discussion going.

Discussion

When the discussion gets under way, the facilitator will need to tread a fine line between ensuring that all points are covered, attending to particularl details and noting the odd interesting piece of data that emerges independent of the official questions, and promoting group discussion, between heeding thoughtful pauses and making sure that the discussion does not dry up. Active listening is very important, and they may need to probe at particular points.

Ending the discussion

It's very important to end the discussion on a positive note, especially if difficult material has been raised, and also to thank people for coming.

Framing questions

The facilitator will have prepared a guide with a list of topics/questions to be covered, the amount of detail and specificity of which will depend upon the degree of structure desired of the group. It is advisable however to have memorized this schedule in advance, as to read from questions will look forced and inhibit discussion.

Questions should be:

  • sufficiently stimulating and keep the discussion going
  • relevant to participants
  • capable of providing concrete data
  • open, so as to lead to in-depth responses and rich data
  • clear, avoiding ambiguity
  • couched in language that participants understand
  • sensitively worded if they explore (particularly difficult) feelings.

They should not:

  • be worded in such a way as to influence or "lead" the answer
  • cover more than one topic per question.

The number of questions and their detail will vary depending on how structured the focus group is to be, but in general five to eight questions is considered a good number, and these should move from the general to the particular.

Examples

Janice Dreachslin, in "Focus groups as a quality improvement technique: a case example from health administration education" (Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 7 No. 4) quotes Krueger (1994) as recommending the following format for questions:

  • An opening question which is factual in nature and establishes the participants’ commonality.
  • A series of introductory questions that acquaint participants with the topic and initiate conversation.
  • Transition questions that move discussion to the focus group’s central topics
  • Two to five key questions that are central to the analysis.

An ending question to accomplish one of the following objectives:

  • encourage participants to state their final position on key topics
  • give participants the opportunity to comment on the accuracy of a facilitator-generated summary of the key input generated by the group
  • enable participants to offer any additional comments relevant to the group’s key purpose.

Dreachslin also discusses the pros and cons of focus groups.

See also Krueger, R.A. and Casey, M.A., 2000, Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

The Appendix of "Using focus groups to assess student needs" (Britt Anna Fagerheim and Sandra J. Weingart, Library Review, Vol. 54 No. 9) contains an example of focus group questions.

"Using focus groups to explore children’s perceptions of smoking: reflections on practice" (Lorna Porcellato et al.Health Education, Vol. 102 No. 6) also provides a copy of the interview schedule in the Appendix.

Conducting a discussion

Leading a good focus group discussion is a balancing act between on the one hand flexibility, allowing a free-flowing conversation, and on the other structure, ensuring that the conversation does not stray too far from the research objectives, that it remains relevant, inclusive of everyone and not dominated by one person. It is very important to obtain responses from the maximum number of people in the group to get the fullest coverage.

Ideally, the discussion should regulate itself and the issues be covered by the respondents without much steering. However, the following techniques will be useful:

  • Steering. Techniques for steering the discussion include reconciling and commenting on divergent views, making links.
  • Probing. The facilitator may need to probe interesting points to get a fuller response, for example by opening up the discussion to others ("How do other people feel about this?"), asking a question ("Can you say a bit more about this?"), repeating what the participant has said, or highlighting different views.
  • Listening to material which may seem divergent. A  participant may launch into an anecdote which may appear to be off the topic but which may contain a nugget of highly relevant information. At the same time it is also necessary to watch out for emergent issues, which may not be in the notes but which may lead to fertile areas for research.
  • Be alert for non verbal signals. For example, nodding or shaking the head to indicate agreement or disagreement, a frown, surprise. Such non verbal signals are best verbalized so that they can be translated into data.
  • Controlling the balance between participants. It's important to moderate between the dominant person and the shy person, and to encourage equality of contribution. This should be done tactfully, with avoidance of hurting someone or embarrassing them. A lot can be achieved by eye contact: withdraw it from the dominant person, look at the shy person encouragingly. If this fails, then try a verbal intervention: "That was very interesting, can we perhaps hear some other views?", "You haven't had a chance to say what you think".
  • Encourage expression of personal views. Participants need to be encouraged to say what they think, which they may find difficult if they feel that it is not politically or strategically acceptable (for example, complaining about a long hours culture). The facilitator should encourage this by stressing that disagreement, and challenging received attitudes, is acceptable.

Example

See "Workplace health concerns: a focus group study" (Annette M. Jinks and Ruth Daniels, Journal of Management in Medicine, Vol. 13 No. 2) for a discussion of the role of the researcher in their focus groups.