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

Quick Hits: 5 Things to Know About Focus Groups

1. Focus Groups are useful when you want to hear a diversity of opinions on a topic.

2. Focus Groups cannot provide statistical support for an argument, but they can provide strong qualitative evidence
    and can help you come up with questions for a future survey.

3. Focus Groups work best when there are between 6 and 10 participants, and when they last between 60 and 90 minutes.

4. Focus Groups depend on a skilled moderator - you should write and practice with a moderator guide in advance.

5. Focus Groups should be video- and/or audio-taped when possible - this will help when you conduct qualitative data analysis.

How do I conduct a focus group? 

Focus groups, sometimes called group interviews, bring several research participants together to talk about an issue in a common conversation.  Focus groups are particularly useful when you are interested in seeing what kind of group dynamic emerges when several people discuss your research topic.  Also, since you are getting the opinions of multiple people at once, focus groups can be a good option when you do not have enough time to conduct many separate interviews with individuals.  Focus groups are often used in conjunction with other research methods – like surveys or individual interviews – but can also be useful on their own. 

Since it is a type of interview, many of the same principles from the best practices in interviewing should remain in place, so you might want to have a look at that section as well.  But there are also some important differences between the focus group process and traditional individual interviews, and this section will point out those differences and help you get ready to conduct your own focus group.  

Focus groups are a good method to use when your research questions have some of the following qualities:

  • You are looking for general information about the group you want to study.
  • You are beginning to explore a topic and are looking for new and creative ideas.
  • You are trying to come up with hypotheses about a problem or issue that you might want to test  later in a quantitative survey.
  • You already conducted a quantitative survey and would like to get some qualitative data to help interpret your results.
  • You want to learn about how individuals and groups talk about a particular issue or product.

Let's start with an example from the Metamorphosis Project.  We wanted to find out more about what residents in our study area saw as the biggest problems in their neighborhood, as well as what people did or did not do to try to deal with those problems.  

Research Questions: 

What are residents' primary concerns in their community?

How does a residents' involvement in the neighborhood storytelling network influence the action they take to deal with community problems?

From our previous research, we had a good idea of what many of those problems would be, but since community residents experience and deal with community problems together, we felt like it was important to get a sense of how they would discuss these issues in a group setting.  We used a list of names and numbers from people who had participated in one of our surveys and had agreed to be contacted again, and we started making phone calls to recruit participants.  We recruited about 40 community residents – an equal number of African American and Latinos, which were the main ethnic groups in our study area – and set up four different focus groups, two for each ethnic group.  We developed a moderator guide with a number of questions and topics, and held the focus groups at our university, moderated by one of our research team members.  The groups were videotaped, transcribed verbatim, and then analyzed using qualitative data analysis techniques.  We wrote up the results of this analysis and have included them in some of our written reports and academic papers.  The findings have also informed future research and action that we have taken in our study area.

All right, let's get going!  First, we start with our three main questions:

  • What do we want to find out? These will be your research questions.
  • Who do we want to get this information from? This will be your sample.
  • How will you get this information? This will be your research method.

Organizing, conducting and troubleshooting your focus group:

When you are done with the data collection, you begin analyzing and reporting the results:

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