Focus Groups and Group Interviews
In most research situations, an ‘interview’ is a one-to-one interaction and our page Interviews for Research discusses their use in gathering data for research. However, there are times when a group interview, also known as a focus group, can be the best way to ensure that you gain the range of views that you need.
Focus groups are widely used in market research and in politics, but perhaps less often in research situations. This may be because researchers lack the necessary skills to make them work, but also because they are not sure when such techniques would be most useful.
Using Focus Groups
Examples of when you might use a focus group are:
- When you are short of time and you need to gather views from a group of people, not just one or two individuals;
- To review a process or event and gather different opinions about it and how to improve it in future;
- When opinions are not likely to be sensitive, and the subject is one that can be freely discussed in a group without embarrassment or concerns;
- When you know that there is a range of views;
- When you want to gather reactions from several people to an event, especially as it happens. This is often used in politics, for example to find out what people think about a party conference speech, party political broadcast, or debate, where events are often televised live.
Organising a Focus Group: Some Practical Thoughts
There are a number of issues to consider in running a focus group.
First, the practicalities. As with any research, select your sample carefully (see our page on Sample and Sample Design for more). Focus groups are necessarily small, which makes it much harder to use a representative sample. However, any sample which is obviously not representative will risk invalidating your research.
Secondly, consider the venue and timing. It sounds obvious, but if you want to chat to working people, you may want to hold the focus group at lunchtime. Nobody’s going to want to stay late after work to talk to you. However, if you want to talk to mums of young children, evening might be best, when their partners are home and the baby is in bed. Alternatively, if you need to hold the event during the day, you might need to consider providing a crèche. Consideration of these aspects avoids eliminating whole sections of your sample population.
You also need to think about the location: is it accessible by public transport? If you’re holding an evening event, will people feel safe walking there? And getting home? Will you pay for travel costs? Will you provide a meal, light refreshments, or nothing at all? Ideally, you want them to feel comfortable and relaxed, but will you achieve this best with the group sitting round a table, like a formal business meeting, or in comfortable chairs, as if they were chatting to friends?
All these will affect the ‘feel’ of the focus group and therefore the participants’ willingness to contribute. The important thing to remember is that you can’t necessarily predict how. You just need to be aware of it and take what steps you can to avoid any problems. However, if any issues do occur, you’ll have to react to them on the day.
Finally, consider how you are going to record the event. Will you take notes? Will the group record views on a flip chart? Or will you video/tape the whole event and review it later? You will need informed consent from the group for whichever method you choose.
On the Day: Running a Focus Group
The most important thing to remember is that you are not trying to interview each person individually. The idea is to create an environment in which each person feels comfortable expressing their views when they wish to do so, and the group is able to discuss the issues. This means one in which conversation flows, and no one individual is allowed to dominate.
Like semi-structured interviews, focus groups will need a broad structure, including some starting questions. If you wish to explore several different areas, make sure that you manage the discussion to cover them all. This means that you may need to move the conversation on from an area of interest to the participants to one that is more interesting to you, but without alienating anyone. You’ll also want to have room for the discussion to expand into areas that develop in the course of the event.
See our page: Facilitation Skills, for more about facilitating groups and some useful techniques for managing them.
If you’re anxious about running a focus group, you may find it helpful to talk to your supervisor or your sponsor to discuss whether you can draft in some expert help as there are plenty of consultancies who can provide this service at reasonable prices.
There are a number of criticisms that can be made of focus groups. These include:
- Concerns that people may not feel comfortable airing their views in public. This may be made worse both if they do not know the other participants and, paradoxically, if they do. For example, if one participant is senior to another in the same organisation, the more junior person may feel unable to express different views, but greater trust between participants usually leads to more openness.
- In public, people often express the views that they feel that they ought to have, rather than their real views. This is known as social pressure and may mean that the focus group’s views are more or less extreme in reality than the expressed view.
However, these concerns can be overcome by good facilitation at the event, including careful design and outline of the topics to be covered, together with triangulation of your research using other techniques and research methods.
A Concluding Thought
Focus groups are not ideal for every situation or every piece of research, and there are serious questions to address in designing one. However, there is no question that, if used well, focus groups are a strong tool for researchers to explore diverse views, especially if time is too tight to allow sufficient in-depth one-to-one interviews to be held. They are well worth exploring if you have the necessary facilitation skills, or access to support to run such an event.