Using Focus Groups for Qualitative Data Collection  

 (Get to Know activity - Model ice-breaker - Chris)

What is a focus Group? (Chris)

            Definition and History

            Why Use Focus Groups?

            Focus group Ingredients (class - how is this different than other forms)

            When to Use a Focus Group

            Advantages and Disadvantages (class add)

The Planning Process (Mari)

            Purpose (tie to NISDC Projects - explain Clarion/Fort Dodge)


            To Use or Not to Use - That is the Question

The Questions (Chris)

            Types of Questions

            Guidelines (questions from previous groups - good or bad)

            The Art of Asking Questions (class - question development for Fort Dodge)

The Participants (Mari)

            Selection Rules

            Strategies (tie to current project)

            Invitations (class - ideas for getting parents to attend)

The Facilitator (Mari)

            Necessary Skills for Facilitators

            Rules for the Facilitator

The Recorder (Mari)

            The Role of the Recorder


Getting Started (Mari)





            Other Problems

The Introduction (Chris)

            The Welcome

            The Ground Rules (model)

            Instructions for Self-Managed Groups (model)

            The Ice-Breaker (example - used at beginning of class)

The Discussion (Chris)

            Asking the Questions

            Facilitation Techniques

            Facilitator Responses

            Body Language

            The Conclusion

A Few Notes (Chris)

            The Unexpected (brainstorm and problem solve - what to do when)

            What to Take to the Interview

            Things to Cover in the Introduction - A Reminder



What is a focus Group?

            Definition and History

            Why Use Focus Groups?

            Focus group Ingredients

            When to Use a Focus Group

            Advantages and Disadvantages

The Planning Process



            To Use or Not to Use - That is the Question

The Questions

            Types of Questions


            The Art of Asking Questions

The Participants

            Selection Rules



The Facilitator

            Necessary Skills for Facilitators

            Rules for the Facilitator

The Recorder

            The Role of the Recorder


Getting Started





            Other Problems

The Introduction

            The Welcome

            The Ground Rules

            Instructions for Self-Managed Groups

            The Ice-Breaker

The Discussion

            Asking the Questions

            Facilitation Techniques

            Facilitator Responses

            Body Language

            The Conclusion

A Few Notes

            The Unexpected

            What to Take to the Interview

            Things to Cover in the Introduction - A Reminder

What is a Focus Group?



A semi-structured group session, moderated by a group leader, held in an informal setting, with the purpose of collecting information on a selected topic.


A carefully planed discussion designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive non-threatening environment, appropriate when the goal is to explain how people regard an experience, idea, or event,  and conducted with a small number of people by a skilled interviewer.


Why Use Focus Groups

•            Allows for group interaction that may bring out information that would not come out either with observation or in response to preconceived questions

•            Allows for greater insights into "why" opinions are held

•          Can interview a larger number of people in less time

•          Can collect "rich" data at a reasonable cost

•          Useful in improving planning/design of programs or evaluation of programs



•            People

•            Assembled in a series of groups

•            Possess certain characteristics

•            Provide data

•          Of a qualitative nature

•          In a focused discussion


When to Use a Focus Group

•          Before a Project

                        Market research

                        Needs assessment

                        Identify trends

                        Strategic planning

                        Program design

•            During a Project

                        Formative evaluation


                        Assessing satisfaction

•          After a Project

                        Summative evaluation



•          With quantitative data

                        Before - insights used to develop questionnaires (may change attitudes)

                        Concurrent - triangulation and confirmation

                        After - look at meaning of quantitative results (may direct discussion)

                        Validity(face/congruent/predictive) and Generalizability


Advantages and Disadvantages (class add)

•            Advantages

                        Socially oriented

                        Flexible format allows probing

                        High face validity

                        Low cost

                        Increases sample size of qualitative studies

•            Disadvantages

                        Less control than in individual interviews

                        Data more difficult to analyze

                        Requires trained interviewers

                        Groups vary considerably

                        Groups difficult to assemble

                        Must be conducted in an environment conducive to conversation


The Planning Process


Focus groups are used to obtain information of qualitative nature from predetermined and limited number of people.

•          Ask 

                        Why should study be conducted? 

                        What kind of information will be produced?

                        What types of information are important?

                        How will the information be used and who wants it?

•            Criteria

                        Range - maximum range of relevant topics; include breadth of experience

                        Specificity - data that is as detailed as possible; detailed descriptions

                        Depth - foster interactions that explore participants feelings

                        Context - take personal context into account; individual meaning

                        NOT consensus building technique



•            Duration              1-2 hours.  General rule is to plan for less time than you tell participants.

•            Number Groups              3-6 different groups should be used.

•          Size                             4-12 with certain characteristics in common (over invite by 20% to cover for no shows); over 12 NOT recommended; IDEAL size 6-8.

•            Composition              participants alike in some way (not in opinions).  Subgroups may be necessary if there are differences in background or role-based perspectives.  General rule is to keep groups homogenous in terms of prestige or status.

•            Sample              systematically selected (purposive sampling).  In organizations, include groups with different roles.

•            Method -             non-directive,  nurture different points of view, identify trends and patterns in perceptions.


To Use or Not to Use - That is the Question

•          Useful When -

                        Insights are needed in exploratory or preliminary studies

                        There is communication or understanding gap between groups

                        The purpose if to uncover factors relating to complex behaviors

                        The is a desire for ideas to emerge fro the group

                        There is a need for additional information to prepare for a larger study

                        Client/audience places high value on capturing the open-ended comments of target audience

•          Not Useful When -

                        The environment is emotionally charged

                        Statistical projections are needed

                        Other methodologies can produce better quality information

                        Confidentiality cannot be ensured

                        The researcher has lost control over critical aspects of the study (participant selection, question development, analysis protocol) and the study is prone to bias


The Questions

Types of Questions

•            Introductory              Round robin question that everyone answers

                                                Background - to locate people in relation to other people


•            Transition              Move the conversation into the key questions

                                                Experience/behavior - to elicit descriptions of behaviors, actions, activities

                                                Knowledge - to find out what respondents consider factual information


•          Key                             Questions that drive the study (2-5 questions)

                                                Opinion/value - to find out what people think

                                                Feeling - to understand emotional response of people to an experience


•            Ending              Bring closure to discussion



•          Do not explore too many topics

•          Limit discussion to 2-5 key questions

•          Use open-ended questions (avoid dichotomous questions and why questions)

•          Use structured guide (or topical guide) to aid in analyzing across groups

•          Build prior team consensus on what questions to ask and at what level of detail

•          Word questions in familiar language, use words that make sense to participants

•          Ask uncued questions first, then follow-up with cued questions if needed

•            Standardized strategies may be used (sentence completion, conceptual mapping)

•            Serendipitous questions are best asked at the end of the session

The Art of Asking Questions

•            Prepare a full list of questions, then order them into categories and develop summary topics

•          Use summary topics to develop key questions

•          DO NOT ask direct questions

                        Boring and slow paced

                        Eliminates spontaneity

                        May encourage uninformed responses

                        Creates moderator dominated discussion


The Participants


Selection Rules

•            Identify characteristics of people you want in the group

•            Maintain control of selection process

•          Use client resources in recruiting participants

•            Beware of selection bias

                        Selected from memory

                        Selected because of expressed concern

                        Selected because they are client clones

                        Selected because they are nonproductive

•            Randomization is useful if pool meets selection criteria

•            Balance cost and quality

•            Locating nonusers is difficult

•          Users may be different from nonusers in ways that affect results

•          No selection process is perfect



            The list (existing list preferred)

            Piggyback with another event

            On location


            Snowball samples

            Screening/selection services

            Random telephone screening

            Ads in newspapers/bulletin boards



            Establish times that do not conflict with community activities

            Phone contact in advance

            Personalized mailed invitation

            Follow-up phone call



The Facilitator


Necessary Skills for Facilitators


            Curiosity for the topic

            Respect for participants

            General background knowledge

            Ability to communicate clearly


            Friendliness and humor (smile)

            Ability to listen, not talk

            Ability to avoid expressing personal views

            Familiarity with questions

            Ability to listen and think simultaneously

            Ability to remember what was discussed (past/present/future perspective)


Rules for the Facilitator

•            Maintain low level of facilitator involvement

                        -Do not want to impose an agenda

                        -Important for content analysis, otherwise results reflect what facilitator (not participants) think is important or interesting

                        -Helps control facilitator bias when using multiple facilitators

                        -Role is to moderate someone else’s discussion, not to interview

                        -Facilitator who appears to be an expert will shut off lines of discussion

                        -Need enough information to probe for details, but must be open to information contrary to the facilitator’s own knowledge

•          Take care not to lead the discussion

                        -Avoid mention of specific terms and over-cueing participants

                        -Direct discussion to concrete and detailed accounts, not generalizations.

                        -Use "think back" questions to probe for details

                        -Avoid following the guide too rigorously. Probe if necessary, skip if already covered, and follow new topics as they arise.

                        -Use participant statements to introduce new topics. track the discussion (moderator takes brief notes) and refer to what participants have mentioned earlier as a mechanism for moving to the next topic.

•            Remain neutral and aware

                        -Encourage responses, but do not agree or disagree, remain neutral

                        -Be aware of non-verbal behaviors (see attachment)

                        -Watch for discrepancies between verbal and non-verbal behavior

                        -Remember to  listen more than you talk.  The moderator must be a reflective listener


The Recorder


The Role of the Recorder

The recorder's role is to capture the affect, body language, sequential nature of the context and key ideas (categories or themes) revealed through the discussion.


•          Before the Meeting

                        -Set up the room/refreshments

                        -Be responsible for the equipment and materials

                        -Label the audio tapes


•            During the Meeting

                        -Sit away from the group

                        -Begin the tape recorder after the introduction (after permission is granted for participants to be recorded)

                        -Monitor the recording equipment

                        -Serve as a timekeeper for the facilitator (arrange cues prior to the session)

                        -Create a seating chart (room arrangement and numbered respondents)

                        -Record salient information from ice-breaker activity (on seating chart)

                        -Take notes identifying speakers by participant number

                        -Record key themes and ideas and who introduced them

                        -Record well said quotes

                        -Watch for and record non-verbal behaviors

                        -Record interaction between participants

                        -Take notes complete enough to be used without audio tape

                        -The recorder does NOT participate in the discussion.  (Note:  The facilitator may check with the recorder at the end of the discussion to see if he/she has any other questions to ask the group)


•          After the Meeting

                        -Debrief with the facilitator

                        -Provide feedback on the analysis



•          Use of audio tape is common, video taping is not recommended

                        More cumbersome

                        More intrusive

                        Creates lighting problems

                        Greater invasion of privacy

                        Tends to "cool things down"

•          Place tape recorder in plain site

•          Avoid excessive attention to the tape recording

•          Use omni directional microphone in center of table (may need two microphones for larger groups)

•          C-90 tapes are preferable


Getting Started


            Promotes group communication and conversation

            Promotes relaxed atmosphere

            Allows facilitator to assess group characteristics



            Seat most talkative on either side of facilitator

            Seat least talkative across from facilitator



            Use time as participants are coming in to strike up conversations (small talk)

            Observe participant interaction

            Use name tents/name tags for participants and use their names

            May want to ask participants to fill out questionnaires as they enter



            Do not allow after opening statements have been made (ice-breaker)

            May want to post sign on door


Other Problems


The Introduction



Overview (Establishing Trust)

            Purpose of the study

            Nature of the organization conducting the study

            How participants selected

            Planned use of data and conditions of confidentiality

            Usefulness of audio taping and participants' right to decline

            Permission to audio tape requested

            Emphasize that you are there to learn from them


The Ground Rules (may be printed on reverse side of name tents)

            Only one person speaks at a time

            No side conversations

            Everyone participates and no one dominates

            All experiences are equally important and equally valid


Instructions for Self-Managed Groups


•            Legitimate members' right to manage the discussion

                        “If you tend to get off track, someone will usually pull the group back to the topic.  We'll jump in if we have to, but usually one of you will take care of that for us.”


•          Cue them on handling common problems

                        "If the group has run out of things to say, just remember that we want to hear as many different views as possible and what usually happens is that someone will think of something that hasn't come up yet and will restart the discussion.”


•            Emphasize that you want to hear as many different points of view as possible

                        "If your viewpoint is a little different, then that is exactly what we want to hear.  Often you find out that other people have the same view, but no one would have mentioned it if someone didn't start the ball rolling.”


•          Get them to use questions to direct the flow of interaction

                        "If someone hasn't really joined in or you seem to be hearing from the same people all the time, try asking questions of someone who hasn't spoken much."


•            Emphasize hearing about their experience

                        "Even if you think your viewpoint is just like everybody else’s, don't  just say I agree.  We want you to tell us your view because there is always something unique to each persons own experience.”


•            Emphasize that all experiences are important

                        "We need to hear as many different things from as many of you as time allows.  There are no right or wrong answers.  We are here to learn from you.”


The Ice-Breaker

(round robin - each person asked to make an individual statement, the facilitator starts and provides an example)



            How long in community/company

            Favorite non-work activity/favorite movie/favorite vacation spot, etc.

            Grade teach/attend/have children in


The Discussion


Asking the Questions

•            Memorize the questions (and the introduction) and try not to refer to notes

•          Start with a general question so the discussion is not restricted

•            Questions should be asked in a natural progression

•          Only 3-5 broad questions should be introduced in a focus group.  The facilitator may have some sub questions in mind, but should not dominate the discussion.

•            Facilitator introduces a question followed by unstructured group discussion until the facilitator introduces a second question. Time criterion may be used.

•          Before going on to the next question, the facilitator summarizes for the group to check out accuracy of perceptions. This allows participants to clarify and correct.


Facilitation Techniques

•          The pause

                        At least 5 seconds

                        May be coupled with eye contact


•          The probe (use sparingly)

                        Explain further

                        Provide an example

                        Say more

                        Anything else

                        Describe what you mean

                        I don't understand


Facilitator Responses

•          Avoid head nodding that indicates agreement/disagreement

•          Be careful with verbal responses

                        OK, Yes, Uh huh are acceptable

                        Correct, Good, Excellent (imply judgment) are not

                        Do NOT give personal opinions


Body Language  (See attachment)


The Conclusion

•            Facilitator summarizes main points

•          Watch for body language that indicates agreement/disagreement/confusion with summary

•          Ask for comments or corrections

•          Allow each person to make a summary statement

•          Did we miss anything?

•          Thank participants

            (May turn off recorder, the thank participants to indicate session ended, and then ask if missed anything)

•          If there is reason to believe that participants have not shared fully or may be able to provide more information, allow some flexibility to schedule individual interviews if possible.


A Few Notes

The Unexpected

            Nobody shows up

            Only a few attend

            The meeting place is inadequate

            The group doesn’t want to talk

            The group doesn’t want to leave

            Hazardous weather occurs

            The early questions take too much time


What to Take to the interview

            Food/snacks if possible

            Audio recording equipment and tapes

            Extra tapes, batteries, extension cord

            Copy of focus group questions (and other noes if needed)

            Notepads and pens/pencils

            A notebook or other hard surface to write on

            Name tags/tents and markers

            Sign (if needed)

            Copies of visuals/handouts (if needed)


Things to Cover in the introduction - A Reminder

            Purpose of study

            Who involved

            How selected

            Use of data and confidentiality

            Permission to tape record and why

            Ground rules

            Instructions for self managed groups

            Ice breaker


Analyzing the Data


            Discuss and summarize


            The report