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Focus Groups as a Research Method: Hear From a Variety of Voices, Explore New Ideas, Gain Clarity and Draw Conclusions

Research Method

There are several different ways to conduct a focus group, similar to the guidelines in the best practices for interviews section.  The main thing that you are going to do is develop some sort of moderator guide (the focus group interview protocol or question guide), which will help a moderator lead the discussion and get to the points that will help you answer your research questions.

First, a quick word about your moderator.  The success of your focus group depends on the ability of the moderator to run a smooth group interview, get a sample of everyone's opinions, and make sure that the goals of the research are accomplished.  The moderator can be a member of your organization or they can be a person from outside.  They should have some experience conducting interviews and focus groups, and if they do not, should have several practice runs before they conduct your group.  Where possible, the moderator should match the focus group participants on a relevant demographic characteristic – if  it was important to separate the group by ethnicity, then you should make sure to have a moderator who matches the group's ethnicity; if you separated by gender, make sure the moderator matches the group's gender.  This means you might need more than one moderator if you are conducting several groups.  The moderator does not necessarily have to help write the questions used in the moderator guide, but they should be familiar with the process and with the goals of your research.  If they are an experienced moderator, you might give them a list of topics and have them create the moderator guide – they should run this by you and make any necessary changes before they conduct the group

Get Participatory! The selection of a moderator and the crafting of a moderator guide can be a great time to get research participants involved in the research process themselves. They will know as well as anyone if the content of the questions asked and the manner in which they are asked are relevant and appropriate to their community.

The biggest difference in the methodology of different types of focus groups is the level of structure that the moderator and the moderator guide employ.  The structure will depend on the goals of the research, the number of issues you want to discuss in the allotted time, and the personal style of the moderator and those who write the moderator guide.

Most focus groups contain some combination of more structured sections and more open sections.  Go with what you feel is best – there is no right or wrong way to proceed.  Returning to our example from the Metamorphosis Project, below are three examples – a structured section of a moderator guide, a semi-structured section of a moderator guide, and a basic topic guide.

Structured Format

Community Problems:

  • In talking to other community residents, we have heard that crime and gangs present some of the biggest problems in the community.  Do you feel like these are big problems?  If so, can you talk a bit about your experience with these problems in your community?
    (After discussion, follow up)
  • What do you or your neighbors do to deal with problems related to gangs and crime, if anything?  Can you think of any recent examples where people came together to deal with a crime problem?  Or any local organizations that are working on the issue?
    (After discussion, follow up)
  • How well do you think the local police handle crime and gang problems?
    (After discussion, move to next topic).
  • Another problem that people have mentioned to us has to do with the poor quality of goods and services in the community, like groceries and medical facilities.  Do you feel like this is a big problem?  Can you talk a bit about your experience with this problem in your community?
    (After discussion, follow up)
  • What do you or your neighborhoods do to deal with problems related to poor goods and services, if anything.  Can you think of any recent examples where people came together to deal with these problems? Or any local organizations that are working on the issue?
    (After discussion, follow up)
  • How well do you think local government deals with these issues?

Semi-Structured Format

Community Problems:

  • We brought you here to discuss issues in your local community.  What do you folks see as the biggest problems that your community faces?
    (Allow for discussion) 
  • Thinking about those issues that we just talked about, can you think of any ways that residents, organizations, or public officials in your community deal with or try to solve them?

Topic Guide Format

Community Problems: 

  • This section should focus on what residents see as the biggest problems in their community, as well as their experience of how the community deals with these problems.

As you can see, the structured format is more detailed and specific to certain types of research questions.  The topic guide is about total exploration of a topic.  And the semi-structured guide provides some guidance but is open to a good deal of leeway. Any of these might work well for you.  If, for instance, you just want to engage in a broad discussion with community members, a topic guide might be sufficient.  Just know that the conversation might lead you into new directions you might not have expected.  Structured formats are a better fit when you would like to stay focused on several central issues and when you are using the focus group as a way to confirm or help interpret other research findings, as in that first example, above.  The semi-structured format splits the difference – it might be useful when you want to do a good deal of exploration, but also want to make sure that you hit on a few important points.

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