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

Choosing Questions

The main parts of your moderator guide – especially in structured and semi-structured groups –  are the questions that you choose to ask.  Once again, some of this advice is similar to the general interview guidelines, but since the group dynamic is so important in the focus group, there are some other things to keep in mind. 

One model for developing questions has been called the “Funnel Approach”.  Think of the shape of a funnel – it is wide on top and then gets progressively slimmer down toward the bottom.  You might design your moderator guide to follow a three-step funnel approach.

Step 1: At the beginning, you might want to have everyone introduce themselves by name, and then start with one or two broad, open-ended questions.  You should give some time for this section, as it is a chance for people to get comfortable, but be careful that it does not take up too much of your allotted time.  For instance, you might ask: What do you like most about living in your community?  What do you like the least?

Step 2: In the next section, you want to hit on the central topics – perhaps three or four main questions – that you are interested in for your research.  This is usually the longest part of your focus group.  These questions should be more specific but still allow a good amount of room for the residents to share diverse opinions.  For instance, you might ask:  How do you feel about crime and gang violence in your community?  Do you know about any residents or local organizations that are doing anything to deal with these problems?  Have you ever gotten involved in any of these efforts?  How do you feel about the job that public officials and law enforcement have done on these issues?

Step 3: In the final section, the moderator might want to ask several specific questions.  These questions might have been planned in advance, or they might simply emerge from the conversation that has already taken place.  For instance, you might ask: “The issue of gangs in school was brought up earlier.  Can you talk a bit more about that?  What do you think the schools can or should be doing to deal with this problem?”

The funnel approach is a nice way to go about designing your questions, but you can go other routes as well.  Some researchers like to go with the “Inverted Funnel Approach”, where they start with specific questions, move to the central questions, and then finish up with a few broad questions. With that said, the Funnel Approach tends to work well for a few reasons.  First, the opening section is easy and helps make people feel comfortable.  These questions should generally not be controversial or potentially offensive in any way.  The next two sections are the place for those specific questions that might indeed be controversial – this way, people have some level of comfort, which makes them more likely to share their opinions.

Feel free to get creative in designing your questions – they can take on different forms.  For instance, if you are interested in a specific fact – like whether or not they have attended a community meeting on crime issues – you might just ask them to raise their hands to show that they had.  This is a quick and easy way to get a sense of the group.  You could have them do a group activity, like a debate or role-play.  You can also try some projective techniques to stimulate conversation –  some potential activities include: word association, complete the sentence, fill in the “bubble”, make up a story, draw a picture, develop a collage, create analogies, use imagination and fantasy, or write a letter.  Feel free to be creative! Once again, this is also a great way to get participatory by involving research participants themselves in the question design process. 

You might also consider creating a “waiting room survey” t o have participants fill out before the focus group gets going.  You can use this survey to get basic information like name and address, but also to ask a few questions that will either get them ready to talk in the focus group, or that you might have had to cut out of the moderator guide because it wasn't a “need to know” question, considering the time is limited.  Here is an example of a waiting room survey the Metamorphosis Project has used:


Name: ______________________________________

                 Metamorphosis Project: Waiting Room Survey

Thank you so much for agreeing to be part of this focus group today. Before we begin, we’d like to ask you to answer a few questions. We look forward to our discussion!

1. What is your age?  _______

2.  How would you describe your ethnicity?  _____________

3. What would you say you enjoy most about living in your community?

4. What would you say you like the least about living in your community?

5. Do you or does anyone in your family belong to any community groupsor clubs?

(These can include sportsclubs, religious groups, political associations, neighborhood watch, and so on.)

__ No

__ Yes: please list these groups

6. Are there any other community groups or clubs in your neighborhood that you know of but are not a part of ?

__ No

          __ Yes: Please list these groups

7. Every community has places where people go to get the goods and services that they need, including things like groceries for their family, health care when they’re sick, and help with employment or housing issues.

7a. What are the institutions or businesses in your community you rely upon most for the goods and services your family needs?

7b. Are you usually able to stay in your community to get these sorts of services?

          __ Yes

          __ No: What area do you go to instead?  _________________________________

8. Have you participated in a focus group during the past year?

__ Yes

__ No

9. Not including today, have you ever participated in a focus group with the Metamorphosis Project?

__ Yes

__ No


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