The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How (many) of Focus Groups
This guide is intended for use for focus groups in the
context of preparing a new survey or doing an evaluation project. It is not
intended for focus groups in the context of developing a research hypothesis.
WHAT is a focus
A focus group is a group discussion
of a particular topic of interest. Focus groups can be distinguished from group
interviews, in which each participant is individually asked each question.
WHEN is it
appropriate to use a focus group?
Focus groups are useful for exploratory research, especially when little
is known about the
question of interest. Though they
can be used at any stage of a research project, focus groups are most commonly
used at the beginning stages of a research project. Focus group research is
typically followed up with more precise measures of larger groups, such as a
survey (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007).
WHY use focus
An advantage of the focus group is
the interaction among participants which can lead to more and different types
of information than individual or group interviews (Kitzinger & Barbour,
1999 and MacDougall & Fudge, 2001).
participants and groups should there be?
Ideally, each focus group will have
six to twelve participants. Groups with fewer than six participants tend to
reveal less information and can be dull. On the other hand, it is difficult to
have an informative conversation with groups larger than twelve. It is also
recommended that a few extra participants be recruited for each focus group, in
case there are no-shows (Gibbs, 1997 and Stewart et al., 2007).
The number of focus groups depends
on the amount of information needed. Some studies have used as little as one
focus group. If a point is reached where no new information is being gleaned
from the focus groups, no additional focus groups are necessary (MacDougall
& Fudge, 2001). More focus groups are needed for more complex questions and
fewer groups are needed when the population is homogenous or the question is
simple. Though there are no firm guidelines regarding the number of focus
groups, most studies use at least two groups and few studies use more than four
groups (Stewart et al., 2007).
WHO should the
The participants should represent the
population of interest. If the goal is to develop a new survey, the
participants should be members of the target population. If the purpose is an
evaluation project, the participants
should be potential members of the program.
In general, participants should be members of the same group. That is,
if you are interested in the perspectives of students and faculty, separate
focus groups should be conducted for each.
WHERE do you find
a moderator and questions for the participants?
First, a clear understanding of the
goals as they relate to the project must be developed. If the purpose of the
focus group is to pilot test a survey, discussion questions will center on
clarity, the adequacy of response scales, and issues of bias. Focus groups
conducted as part of program evaluation will focus on the key small goals on a
set of objectives for the program. It is important that the moderator be able
to understand the information that will come up during the session. Moderators
guide the discussion and ensure participation by all, but do not express their
own opinions. It is also important that the moderator is someone the target
group will be comfortable with (Stewart et al., 2007).
There are two important ideas to keep
in mind while generating questions. It is important to begin with general
questions first and move throughout the session to more specific questions. It
is also wise to put the most important questions at the beginning of the
session. Questions should also be understandable to participants and follow-up
probes should be considered when appropriate (Stewart et al., 2007).
Gibbs, A. (1997). Focus groups. Social Research Update (March).
Kitzinger, J. & Barbour, R.S.
(1999). Introduction: the challenges and promise of focus groups. In R.S.
Barbour and J. Kitzinger (Eds.), Developing
Focus Group Research (pp. 1-20), London: Sage.
C. & Fudge, E. (2001). Planning and recruiting the sample for focus groups
and in-depth interviews. Qualitative
Health Research, 11, 117-126.
Stewart, D. W., Shamdasani, P. N.,
& Rook, D. W. (2007). Focus Groups:
Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
E. (2007). “Focus groups can be fun”: The use of activity-oriented questions in
focus group discussions. Qualitative
Health Research, 17, 1422-1433.
R. A. (1998). Developing questions for
focus groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
R.A. (2009). Focus groups: A practical
guide for applied research (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
C. & Potter, J. (2004). Focus Group
Practice. London: Sage.