Do-It-Yourself Focus Groups


By Thomas J. Roach

There are two kinds of research: quantitative and qualitative. Surveys are quantitative research. That means they ask questions with answers that can be converted into numbers. Quantitative research is the fastest, most efficient way to gather information from a large public. Qualitative research produces unique and unanticipated data. Think of it as quantitative as in quantity: numbers, and qualitative as in quality: the meaning of life, etc.

Qualitative research happens when we talk to people to find out what their concerns are, how they might deal with an issue, and what words they use to discuss it. This can provide possible scenarios or solutions or just opinions.

Because focus groups are qualitative, they cannot be used to predict public opinion like surveys, but they do generate ideas and provide ranges of issues that can be used to deepen our understanding of issues. Probing interviews are also qualitative research, but they test individual opinions. Because focus groups test opinions in groups, they come closest to simulating what actually happens when people get together to have spontaneous discussions about issues.

Public-opinion focus groups should contain 10 to 14 people. Any more or less and participants tend to feel inhibited and engage in less open discussion. There should be one moderator and one note taker.

One important reason to conduct focus groups is that they can reveal which perceptions and arguments are most persuasive. The note taker should focus on points of conflict and consensus. One-way mirrors, recording devices, and too many observers make the focus group participants self-conscious and can skew the results. Focus group participants need to be selected randomly. Self-selection is especially problematic. Once someone has been randomly selected, the researcher needs to make every effort to gain the person’s cooperation and not be tempted to substitute someone who wants to participate.

Assemble the group in a comfortable conference room. Introduce everyone and pass out an agenda. The agenda should be a list of topics only, not a list of questions. Questions tend to steer the conversation. Then go over these rules with the group:

  1. It is the purpose of the focus group to flesh out issues, not to draw conclusions. There will be no voting, and no action will be taken as a direct result of the proceedings.
  2. It is ok to disagree with one another; in fact it is desirable to hear different sides of an issue.
  3. The note taker will not write down names, and when the focus group is over, participants should protect the anonymity of the group.

Take questions, then start the discussion by asking a neutral question on the first topic: “What do you think about …” Ideally someone will respond and a discussion will start. Since focus groups are fishing expeditions, it is ok to let the discussion get slightly off track. However, when it ceases to produce relevant information, it is time to interrupt. The moderator may want to bring the group back to a particular point, ask someone to respond to a specific statement, or go on to the next item on the agenda.

Moderating the focus group requires patience. Do not try to get the discussion started by going around the room putting questions to individuals: “What do you think … and what do you think?” That would be a group interview, not a focus group. The group has to move at its own pace.

Sometimes one member of the group knows more than the others or just talks too much. In that case, the moderator may need to interrupt, thank the person for his or her expertise, and say that it is important hear other opinions. When the topic has been exhausted, the moderator then can go back to the talker and let that person provide a wrap-up to the discussion.

Immediately after the session is over the moderator should review the notes with the note taker to add details and make sure the key points are emphasized. Be prepared to be surprised at what you will find out.