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How to... conduct a focus group

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Article Sections

  1. What is a focus group and for what is it suitable?
  2. How to facilitate a focus group
  3. Design issues of focus groups
  4. Other resources

What is a focus group and for what is it suitable?

Focus groups as a qualitative technique

Focus groups are a data gathering technique used in qualitative and ethnographic research, and as such they share many of the latter's assumptions and call for many of its skills.

The ethnographic approach to research is one where the researcher studies research subjects in their natural setting, observing behaviour and tapping into shared knowledge.

It is most appropriate for studying processes which have a strong social element, such as those which depend on group interaction, and where it is important to take account of diverse views and perspectives. It is used to obtain a rich and detailed view of a reasonably small area as opposed to a wide range of fairly objective data covering a large area: depth, rather than breadth.

It is based on an interpretivist theoretical perspective, which sees positivism as being inappropriate to any study which describes humans, their behaviour and attitudes.

The role of the researcher is as a participant, either active or passive, and he or she is less "objective" than with quantitative research. The researcher is an observer, and needs strong skills of communication, able to tease out the nuances of meaning and hear messages that are not being verbalized, of interpretation, with the ability to unpack messages, and discern patterns.

The most commonly used qualitative settings are participant observation, and the interview. The interview may be either one to one, or within a group.

Key features of focus groups

"The group interview is essentially a data gathering technique ... that relies upon the systematic questioning of several individuals simultaneously in a formal or informal setting."
(Fontana, A. and Frey, J.H., 2000, "The interview: from structured questions to negotiated text", in Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed., Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA)

"Qualitative groups (Dick, 1999) are generally defined as groups of people brought together to participate in the discussion of an area of interest. In market research this would be for example, to discuss a product, brand or advertisement for the purposes of clarifying an area of concern for a client. In social research it could be to discuss an area of social concern."
(Boddy, C., 2005, "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but 'group discussion' is not another name for a 'focus group' nor should it be", Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 8 No. 3, quoting Dick, B., 1999, Rigour without Numbers: The Potential of Dialectic Processes as Qualitative Research Tools, 3rd ed., Interchange, Chapel Hill, NC)

A focus group is always directed by a moderator/facilitator, with varying degrees of control depending on whether it is:

  • Structured, where the facilitator is more directive, having a set agenda and not letting the group deviate from it. The reason for having a structured focus group is that the researcher has a fairly good idea what the issues are and wants to spend time exploring them.
  • Unstructured, where the group discussion is more free flowing. This type of focus group may be used in product research, or for an exploration of general issues, such as how employees feel about a new pay scheme. A varient of the unstructured focus group is the nominal group, where participants are physically isolated, but views are gathered for comment with a possible later meeting, and the Delphi technique, where the idea is to reach a consensus.

As stated in the introduction to this piece, the terms "focus group" and "group interview" are used interchangeably. In his article "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but 'group discussion' is not another name for a 'focus group' nor should it be" (Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 8 No. 3), Clive Boddy suggests the adoption of two terms, focus group interview and focus group discussion, the one structured and the other unstructured, as defined above.

The focus group can also either take place in a formal setting, designated by the researcher and where participants come in response to invitations, or in an informal setting, such as on a street corner, shopping mall etc. There is a benefit in having the group in a familiar setting, which can reduce the sense of "otherness".

The defining quality of the focus group is its collectivist nature: in concentrating on the group, it allows for expression of a variety of different perspectives (thereby aligning it to a non positivist, interpretivist approach which allows for multiple perspectives). Not only is it possible to gain access to the experiences of many different individuals, but also because individuals interact with one another, data is enriched as group members spark each other off, enabling views to be reformulated through exchange, nuances of meaning teased out, recall strengthened, and shy members given confidence. Data are enhanced as they are drawn from a social context, and interaction is horizontal – between participants – as well as vertical – interviewer/interviewee.

Another advantage of the focus group, and one that is especially relevant with a clearly defined research population, is that it is an efficient way to interview more people in a shorter amount of time than is possible with a one to one interview.

As a technique, the focus group has elements of both participant observation and the individual interview, calling for both a questioning style and the observation of group processes. Whether the researcher chooses the individual or group approach for interviews will depend upon a number of factors.

Individual interviews are good:

  • when you need to focus on an individual's personal circumstances or history
  • when the subject-matter is very complex, for example when you are talking about complex systems or processes
  • when confidentiality is required
  • when coming to a particular location may inhibit, and it is therefore better to interview on subject's home ground.

Group interviews are good:

  • when interaction between participants will illuminate the research issue
  • when issues are abstract or conceptual, or are concerned with attitudes or views
  • when interviewees are likely to be intimitated by a one to one setting.

Of course, the two methods can be combined as when a focus group is followed up by a series of one to one interviews with selected participants. Knowing how to combine them is a matter of knowing how their particular strengths and weaknesses will fit into your research design.

The following examples show uses of focus groups in both structured and unstructured settings:

History of focus groups

The focus group as a technique was first developed in the 1920s, mainly to help develop survey questionnaires, although also for other purposes of social research.

In the 1940s, Robert Merton and Paul Lazarfield used the technique for group interviewing people about their reactions to wartime radio programmes (see Merton, R., 1987, "Focused interviews and focus groups: continuities and discontinuities", Public Opinion Quarterly, No. 511, pp. 550-566). From that time until the 1970s, focus groups were mainly used in market research, for such matters as brand images, packaging and product choice.

By the late 1980s, however, the focus group had become recognized as a social science method in its own right, partly in reaction to perceived limitations of other methods: the individual interview was seen as liable to be influenced by the interviewer, and the closed questions of surveys too limited in terms of depth of data. As against this, quantitative methods have – particularly in the USA – dominated both the social sciences and management sciences, although there is currently much interest in qualitative methods on both sides of the Atlantic, so it seems likely that the popularity of the focus group will continue.

Advantages and disadvantages of focus groups

K. Denise Threlfall (in "Using focus groups as a consumer research tool", Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, Vol. 5 No. 4) provides a good summary of the advantages and disadvantages of the focus group:


  • The researcher has less control over the subject, which means that more weight can be given to the data.
  • It allows for the observation of social interaction, which can enrich the data, correct the individualistic bias inherent in the one-to-one interview and take account of the social construction of meaning.
  • The participants can take control of the discussion process, moving the conversation to topics that are of relevance to them.
  • It is particularly suited to research amongst populations which may perceive their views to be devalued, for example socially excluded groups, or in an organization where a particular group of workers may feel that their opinions are ignored by management.
  • It can act as a change agent as participants become aware of the limitations of their situation and produce an agenda for change.
  • As compared with a questionnaire, participants have more control in that they are able to respond to questions in greater depth, and probe awkward and sensitive issues.
  • It is relatively inexpensive to conduct, and less expensive and time-consuming than individual interviews.
  • It is good for researching attitudes, convictions and beliefs. 


  • May be subject to groupthink, where the predominant group view may dominate individual expression.
  • May be dominated by particular members while others may be shy.
  • Personal opinions may distort the result.
  • Cannot generalize the findings of one focus group.
  • A focus group is not a normal way of interacting socially, therefore the advantages drawn from observation of social interaction may be limited.
  • As compared with participant observation, the behavioural information is limited to verbal communication, body language, facial expression etc.
  • The presence of the facilitator may be restricting.
  • Because of the dynamic nature of the group process, greater skill in interviewing is called for.
  • Difficult for sensitive or intimate topics or if confidentiality is involved.
  • Difficult if for any reason participants don't feel comfortable with one another, as for example in a work situation where supervisors and supervisees are brought together.
  • Some populations may find it difficult to travel to a particular venue.
  • Difficult to control number as invitees may not turn up.

Uses of the focus group

Focus groups are used widely in the following areas:

  • social research, often to explore issues surrounding the delivery of services
  • marketing, to look at the effectiveness of an advertising campaign, or the likely reception of a particular product
  • politics, by political parties to explore voter concerns, for which they have received a certain notoriety as some would see their use as merely window dressing, while others criticize an over readiness to generalize from the particular
  • in a range of academic disciplines such as anthropology, communication, education, marketing, political science, sociology, psychology, nursing and public health.


"Using focus groups to evaluate health promotion interventions" (Kirsten Mitchell and Patrick Branigan, Health Education, Vol. 100 No. 6) describes how to use focus groups in health promotion.

"Using focus groups as a consumer research tool" (K. Denise Threlfall, Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, Vol. 5 No. 4) looks at its use in marketing research.

"Using focus groups to explore children’s perceptions of smoking: reflections on practice" (Lorna Porcellato et al., Health Education, Vol. 102 No. 6) discusses the use of focus groups with children.

Focus groups are also used widely with the following applications:

  • exploratory research, to define a research problem 
  • to generate a hypothesis
  • to carry out a needs assessment, for example if you are developing a training or educational product and you want to know what people need
  • to identify key informants who can later be interviewed
  • as a precursor to a survey, to help determine both the type of questions and their wording, the latter through listening to the type of language used by participants
  • to obtain rich accounts of particular events
  • to explore attitudes, for example towards new work practices, changes in a company
  • to triangulate with other research findings, and where you want to explore findings in greater depth.