Focus groups are facilitated discussions with small groups of people. Like interviews, they can be a useful way to explore different perspectives in more depth, capturing information about personal and group feelings, perceptions, and opinions. They also allow participants to interact with one another, building on ideas and exploring a broader range of issues. They are best suited to feedback, outcome, and impact data.
Here we take you through how to conduct and collect information through focus groups.
Why use focus groups?
- Understand points of debate, as well as similarities and contrasts in people’s experiences
- Generate ideas for changes or improvements
- Stimulate a lively and interesting discussion
- Help people feel more engaged with your organisation
- Save time compared to individual interviews
- Results cannot be reported at the individual level
- Discussions move fast, so it can difficult to get into detail
- May not be appropriate for sensitive topics
- The most vocal participants can dominate the discussion
How to conduct a focus group?
1. Plan and design your focus group
The size of your focus group will depend on your requirements, but six to ten participants generally allows you to capture a range of views, while exploring issues in detail. Consider how you can make it easy for participants to take part, including your choice of venue – how convenient and comfortable it is – and any incentives you might want to offer, such as travel expenses or refreshments.
It is best to run a group with two facilitators: one to run the session, and another to take notes. Facilitators must be skilled in managing group dynamics. They should also have knowledge about the topics being discussed, and an awareness of the profile of the participants.
Topic guides for facilitators
Prepare a structure for the discussion with a list of questions or topics. Think about how you might rephrase questions in the event they do not evoke responses or are not understood, and ways to handle any conflicts if they arise. You can include creative methods within focus groups to encourage engagement and get participants to think about topics in different ways. Decide what to do if participants ask for advice or information. Generally, it’s best to acknowledge what participants have asked for and suggest speaking to them after the group has ended.
If conducting the focus group in person, ensure you have a comfortable and convenient venue that accommodates the accessibility requirements of the participants. Check you’ll have access to any required equipment; for example, flipcharts and recording devices. You may choose to use an online platform. This can make focus groups more convenient. However, online focus groups tend to have a higher drop-out rate and the technological requirements may make it difficult for some groups to participant, potentially biasing your results. Focus groups should last no longer than two hours. Allow time either side for facilitators to agree on the process and debrief.
Communicate with potential participants in advance
Write to the participants asking them to take part. Tell them about the broad topic area beforehand, but not the specific questions – to minimise the risk of bias and allow flexibility for the moderator to explore topics in greater detail while omitting others on the day. Give clear details about the date, time, venue, and any incentives offered. Ensure participants are fully informed about what will be expected of them and what will happen with the data gathered during the focus group. You can read more about gaining ‘informed consent’ from participants in our Research, ethics and data protection page.
2. Conduct the focus group
When introducing the focus group:
- Explain the purpose of the focus group and how participants can help.
- Tell participants how they will find out the results of the work you are doing.
- Explain why you need to take notes (or record the session) and ask if they are happy about this.
- Think about how to put participants at ease; for example, by assuring them that their names will not be used.
During the focus group:
- Let participants respond on their own terms, and define the issues that are important to them, but keep the group focused on the key topics. Respect participants’ right not to discuss sensitive topics but support them if they wish to do so.
- Give everyone the opportunity to comment, particularly those who may find it difficult to contribute. Politely manage participants who try to take over the discussion or provoke others. Their views are valid but ensure they don’t stop others participating.
- Ask for feedback periodically to summarise and clarify key points.
- Observe body language. If someone pulls a face, ask them about it.
- If taking notes, refer to the whole discussion and not only the points that are agreed by the whole group. Try to write down interesting comments word for word so you can quote them later. Record non-verbal behaviour.
Ending the focus group:
- Let participants know as you come close to the end of the discussion.
- Summarise and clarify key points.
- Confirm how and in what form you will communicate the findings of the focus group.
- Thank participants for their time and contributions.
After the focus group:
- The facilitator and note-taker should spend time reviewing and agreeing how to analyse
and report on the information gathered. Type up the notes as soon as possible.
- Give feedback to the participants, especially if you are planning to bring them back again
for further focus groups.
Adapted from content NCVO.