Musings on focus groups

Several of my students have used, or are planning to use, focus groups in their research projects. I’ve seen this method of data collection used in rigorous research settings as well as looser market or customer research settings and have been pondering on the pros and cons presented.

‘A focus group saves so much time – it’s like six interviews for the price of one,’ said one student a long time ago. Well, not really. It might be quicker to run one focus group of six people than it would be to interview six people individually, but it is not the same as six interviews. Individual interviews have the benefits of participants being allowed the freedom to speak their mind without fear of reproach, with no-one other than the researcher hearing what they have to say, and they allow you to probe for anecdotes and examples particular to each participant. Focus groups have a completely different character. Table 1 below summarises some of the benefits and challenges of interviews and focus groups.

Table 1 Comparison of interviews and focus groups

InterviewsFocus groups
One-to-one researchGroup research
Gathers individuals’ views, one at a timeGathers views from a number of people quickly
Some participants may feel pressured while others may feel freed to speak their mindGroup situations may relax some participants while others may feel they can’t speak up
Encourages individual anecdotes and storytellingEncourages discussion and exchanges of views
Some participants may not wish to answer questions that seek deeper answersParticipants who might not have answered some questions in a one-to-one session may feel more able simply to agree with another participant expressing the same views
Sensitive issues may be addressed if participants feel comfortable and are assured of confidentialityNot suitable for researching sensitive issues that seek personal information that participants do not wish to share with others
A one-hour interview usually allows discussion of a number of questionsA one-hour focus group usually allows discussion of a smaller number of questions, if all participants are given the chance to speak
Can be a slow process and involves organising many individual sessionsCan be tricky to set up but fewer are needed in order to include the same number of participants
Interviewing skills neededFacilitating skills needed
Researcher bias possible in question design, interviewing technique and interpretation of resultsResearcher bias possible in facilitation, e.g. allowing one participant to dominate, closing down participants with opposing views, as well as question design and interpretation of results
Interviewer may use prompts (verbal, audio, video, objects, etc.)Facilitator may use prompts (verbal, audio, video, objects, etc.) but remember to allow time for all participants to engage with them

The key difference between interviews and focus groups is, of course, that more than one participant is involved in the focus group. This setting, if facilitated well by the researcher, can lead to interesting and lively discussions around the research topic. Participants are free to agree and disagree with each other, to add to points made by others, to provide examples for each other’s points and so on. The reactions of participants to each other’s points can also be recorded – some may be horrified, angered, amused or baffled by what others say, and this will show in their body language and tone of voice. In short, a lot of useful information may be gathered not only from what participants say but from how they say it, how they respond to each other and whether they agree with each other. This makes the focus group a particularly rich setting for gathering research data.

The challenges around using focus groups are almost always to do with facilitation. It’s important to make the participants feel comfortable, ensure they each have an opportunity to speak, that no-one dominates the discussion and that all views are accepted as offered. It’s important that the facilitator does not give their views or give any indication as to whether they agree or disagree with others’ views. That’s tough, because some of our body language and facial expressions are involuntary, so it demands a lot of control.

A colleague of mine, Dr Lakhbir Singh, used focus groups for his research about people’s trust in banks following the financial crash of 2008. He ran four focus groups in order to cover all the various segments of the relevant population and had two criteria for participation – the participants had to have a UK bank account with one of the ‘big four’ (Lloyds, Barclays, NatWest and HSBC) and they couldn’t be working for a bank at the time (to prevent conflict of interest). The topic was so invigorating, and participants were so keen to talk about how they felt, that Lakhbir had no trouble keeping the discussion going but did have to rein in one or two speakers who were starting to dominate or who were getting heated. As a result of the focus groups, Lakhbir was able to isolate and identify key criteria for trust in UK banks. It worked extremely well and demonstrated how a focus group discussion on this topic was much more successful than individual interviews would have been. Cross-referencing of ideas across multiple interviews would have taken much longer and may not have produced the same strength of response.

Here are a few tips for successful focus groups:

Before you start

  • Ensure your participants are representative of the population.
  • Plan more than one focus group if you need to capture the views of a large number of people – more than six in one group will limit how much each participant can say.
  • Choose a neutral location that’s convenient for all the participants to get to and a time that is convenient for them, too. If using online technology, check all participants have access and a quiet space where they will not be interrupted.
  • If you plan to record the sessions on audio or video, let potential participants know before they agree to take part, ask them again just before you start and ask them to sign a consent form.
  • Ensure participants know the research is confidential and they will not be identified in the write-up – this should help them to relax and be honest.
  • Avoid sensitive issues. If your research covers issues that may be considered sensitive, ensure you have the appropriate ethical approval to proceed.
  • Ensure participants understand that they will not be able to withdraw following the session, as their words will be an integral part of the discussion and may make other participants’ contributions meaningless, if removed.

Running the focus group

  • Use open questioning styles to encourage longer responses.
  • Use prompts (verbal, audio, video, objects) as necessary to spark or encourage discussion.
  • Ask ‘tell me some more about…’ or ‘can you give me some examples of…?’ to dig deeper, obtain personal insights and encourage discussion.
  • Let people talk! Don’t feel you have to contribute or interrupt. Draw the conversation back to the topic if it drifts away from the desired focus, but make sure that your voice is the one that is heard the least.
  • Don’t forget to thank everyone for taking part.

Follow-up

  • Put aside plenty of time for transcribing the discussion – it will take ages!
  • Anonymise the participants in the transcripts and in writing up your results.
  • Send a transcript to participants, if you have promised this – this helps to verify the data is accurate.
  • On completion of your research project, send a short summary of the results and conclusions to your participants, if you have promised this.

I hope those tips are useful! Let me know in the comments if you have any more tips or have some experience of using focus groups.

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