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Learning 2 get the best from Focus Groups

Management Tip     

Learning 2 get the best from Focus Groups

Focus groups are a great way of getting the views of a range of people who are representative of your client group.  Because they are carried out (normally) face to face, and in a group, the information is gathered through what feels like an informal conversation, although in reality, the facilitator’s questions are carefully thought through. They cannot get the statistically sound majority feedback of a survey, as typically you will be interviewing a very small proportion of your client group, but you can tightly control your participants to get a good representation of the make up of your target audience, and the feedback will be in-depth, qualitative and may even generate new ideas.

Focus groups can be used in a wide variety of situations: piloting a new product, service or initiative; getting feedback on an existing product, service or initiative; when looking to make improvements; when looking to develop something new; when your client group is ‘hard to reach’ and unlikely to respond to surveys, i.e. very young, elderly, ill or disabled, non-English speaking, etc. and may need help to express their views;

Use the following steps to plan, run, and assess a focus group:

Identify purpose and audience

What do you want to know? Who are you trying to reach? Include a mix of both ‘users’ and ‘non-users’ where you can.

Develop a ‘screener document’

This document is designed to help you select a well-rounded group that is consistent with the audience for the project. The screener is a questionnaire that shouldn't take more than five minutes to administer to each potential participant.

Recruit participants

Allow two to three weeks to recruit. Using the screener, choose participants who demonstrate diversity in the following areas: race; gender; age; professional or educational experience (if relevant); geography (e.g., rural, urban, suburban).

Sign up and confirm participants

Once a participant is signed up, send a confirmation letter. (The ideal group includes eight to 12 participants with diverse backgrounds.)

Develop a discussion guide

Begin with general questions; then move to more specific probes. For example, in a transport consultation focus group you might ask participants: "How often do you use a bus/train? Why/why not? What would help you to use it more often?" Then ask: "What aspects of using public transport are difficult? What services do you wish you had that would help you use your car less?"

Plan session logistics

Logistical considerations:

  • A comfortable quiet room
  • Light refreshments
  • Table with name cards
  • Close proximity to toilets
  • Parking
  • Good set of directions
  • Waiting room for anyone accompanying disabled participants
  • Contact person to greet participants
  • Have any viewing materials cued up
  • A competent note-taker or ‘moderator’
  • Audiotape and/or videotape the session
  • Expense forms/ payment cheques if offered

Usually a group is led by a facilitator with a ‘moderator’ who takes notes and manages the recording (either audio or video tape). It is essential to record the discussion as both facilitator and moderator will inevitably miss some important points.  If participants are asked for sensitive or confidential feedback, the tapes must be used only by the facilitator and all comments must be generalized or made anonymously in a written report.

However, some groups are observed by those commissioning the consultation.  The more observers in the room, the less comfortable participants will be. If possible, use a room with a two-way mirror so that others on the team can view the discussions taking place.

Run the focus group

Follow the discussion guide. Be sure to set ground rules for the group, such as "There is no right or wrong answer; jot down ideas as they come to you; respect other participants' right to speak; stop speaking when the facilitator asks."

Always answer a question with a question. Allow as many opinions to emerge as possible.

STAY ON TIME! It is important to plan out your time and control the discussion in order to complete the entire agenda you have laid out. If there isn't enough time to ask all of your questions, send a follow-up e-mail, although this is less desirable.

Debrief informally

Immediately after the session, ask the note-taker to read the notes aloud to the members of the project team (unless they are confidential). The facilitator and other project participants and observers should discuss the following: "What did we learn? What in our planning was confirmed? What did we find surprising? What seems to be our next steps?"

Analyse notes (and/or tapes)

Within three days of the focus group, type up and then analyse the notes. Look for suggestions for improving your product/ service. For example, you may find that when you showed a clip from a video, the focus group participants seemed confused about the concept. They suggested that a narrative voiceover or a graphic might be helpful. They also suggested that you delete several seconds of discussion that they found extraneous. You may find that participants responded quite favourably to particular aspects of the product/ service. You can list these positive responses to incorporate into promotional material.

Write up the focus group report

Summarise the following:

  • Recruitment process
  • Participant profiles
  • Information gathered
  • Impact on the original thinking
  • Changes that will be made


Information on training in How to Run a Focus Group

For information on Facilitation Services for Focus Groups phone 07514 031549