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Focus groups

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For deeper analysis you could choose to consult with an online or face-to-face or focus group.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a facilitated discussion between six to eight participants usually from similar backgrounds.

The main emphasis of this method is to collect information which emerges from the interaction within the group. The aim is for a deeper or broader analysis to emerge.

A facilitator is responsible for guiding the group through a discussion focused on a limited number of questions based on a core topic.

The facilitator also makes sure that there is a full record of the discussion. Focus groups usually take place over one or two hours.

Why use a focus group?

Focus groups are a widely accepted method of qualitative research. They collect opinions, not statistics. The dynamics of the group, and how the participants interact, provide additional useful information.

Focus groups can be used at any point in an evaluation – for example, you might use them at the end of a project or programme to understand participant perceptions of the difference it has made.

Setting up a focus group

Choosing participants

Focus groups should have between six and ten participants.

Type

Where possible, try to ensure the participants are as similar as possible in terms of age, gender and social class.

Research has shown that when participants are very different, this can inhibit communication, or affect the quality of the information given.

Established groups

Think about whether a cohesive group already exists. Some researchers argue that participants should not have met before. Practically, however, it may be easier to interview a pre-existing group, if one is available.

Incentives

Consider how you can make it easy for participants to take part. It may help to offer incentives such as travel expenses, refreshments or payment.

If incentives have been offered they should be provided to participants at the same time as their contribution. 

Invitation

Write to the participants asking them to take part. Tell them about the broad topic area beforehand, but not the specific questions and give clear details about the date, time, venue and any incentives offered.

Facilitator preparation

Number

It is best to run a group with two facilitators – one to run the session, and one to make notes.

Skills

Whether the facilitators you choose are external consultants or members of staff, they need:

  • skills in managing group dynamics
  • background knowledge on the topics being discussed
  • awareness of the profile of the participants attending the group. 

Structure

The facilitators prepare a structure for the discussion in advance with a list of questions or key topics. Think in advance about ways in which you might rephrase questions on the day in the event they do not evoke responses or are not understood by participants.

Briefing

Allow 30 to 40 minutes either side of the focus group for the facilitators to agree on the process before the discussion starts and to debrief and compare notes after the participants leave.

Venue

Ensure you have a comfortable venue, with space, light and ventilation. The venue should be wheelchair accessible and take into consideration access requirements of participants, such as hearing aid loops and large font visual displays and handouts. 

Note taking or taping

Focus groups are usually taped to allow you to capture all the points made and quotes. However, you may also decide to take notes and to write up the discussion from the notes, just referring to the tapes when you need to. This could save time in lengthy transcription.

Offering help

Decide what to do if participants ask you for advice or information. Generally, it’s best to acknowledge what participants have asked for and ask to speak to them about it after the group has ended. You may know where they might go to for advice.

Reporting results

Decide in advance how participants will find out about the results of your work. Will you be able to afford to send them all copies of the report, or a summary sheet?

Online focus groups

There is software available for online discussions and focus groups. Although this software is used mainly for market research, it can be used for any kind of qualitative research.

Participants are given a password and/or username to access the moderator’s computer screen, and take part either by typing in or by phone.

Advantages

Without the need to travel, online focus groups can be convenient for participants – although you may need to over-recruit because of a potentially higher drop-out rate.

Participants may also feel reassured by the anonymity of the discussion, and feel more able to share personal views and perceptions.

For the researcher, carrying out a focus group online can offer the advantage of greater geographical reach without the costs of travel and accommodation. Potentially this allows more groups to be held, expanding the sample.

Other advantages are that you can put specific questions and triggers on screen, as well as other media and documents to be viewed.

Disadvantages

There are some potential drawbacks to carrying out focus groups online. The technology may limit who accesses the discussion, or how they are able to participate. This may bias your sample or your data. The researcher will also require specific skills to moderate the group and build an encouraging environment.

Tips

Make sure you send clear instructions well in advance, prepare well and contact participants by phone beforehand. This helps to build a rapport with them, to make sure they are confident about the procedure and to answer any questions they have.

Software suppliers

Learn more

Page last edited Dec 16, 2016

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