How To Use Focus Groups in Research

An Overview of the Method

A group of people meets as a focus group, as part of a qualitative sociology research study.
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Focus groups are a form of qualitative research that is commonly used in product marketing and marketing research, but it is a popular method within sociology as well. During a focus group, a group of individuals – usually 6-12 people – is brought together in a room to engage in a guided discussion of a topic.

Let's say you're beginning a research project on the popularity of Apple products. Perhaps you want to conduct in-depth interviews with Apple consumers, but before doing that, you want to get a feel for what kinds of questions and topics will work in an interview, and also see if consumers might bring up topics that you wouldn't think to include in your list of questions.

A focus group would be a great option for you to talk casually with Apple consumers about what they like and don't like about the company's products, and how they use the products in their lives.

The participants of a focus group are selected based on their relevance and relationship to the topic under study. They are not typically chosen through rigorous, probability sampling methods, which means that they do not statistically represent any meaningful population. Rather, participants are chosen through word-of-mouth, advertising, or snowball sampling, depending on the type of person and characteristics the researcher is looking to include.

Advantages of Focus Groups

There are several advantages of focus groups:

  • As a socially oriented research method, it captures real-life data in a social setting.
  • It is flexible.
  • It has high face validity, meaning that it measures what it is intended to measure.
  • It generates quick results.
  • It costs little to conduct.
  • Group dynamics often bring out aspects of the topic or reveal information about the subject that may not have been anticipated by the researcher or emerged from individual interviews.

Disadvantages of Focus Groups

There are also several disadvantages of focus groups:

  • The researcher has less control over the session than he or she does in individual interviews.
  • Data can sometimes be difficult to analyze.
  • Moderators require certain skills.
  • Differences between groups can be troublesome.
  • Groups can often be difficult to pull together.
  • The discussion must be conducted in a conducive environment.

Basic Steps In Conducting A Focus Group

There are several basic steps that should be involved when conducting a focus group, from preparation to data analysis.

Preparing For The Focus Group:

  • Identify the main objective of the focus group.
  • Carefully develop your focus group questions. Your focus group should generally last 1 to 1.5 hours, which is usually enough time to cover 5 or 6 questions.
  • Call potential participants to invite them to the meeting. Focus groups generally consist of 6-12 participants who have some similar characteristic (e.g., age group, status in a program, etc). Select participants who are likely to participate in discussions and who don’t all know each other.
  • Send a follow-up invitation with a proposed agenda, questions up for discussion, and time/location details.
  • Three days before the focus group, call each participant to remind them of the meeting.

    Planning The Session:

    • Schedule a time that is convenient for most people. Plan the focus group to take between 1 and 1.5 hours. Lunchtime or dinnertime is usually a good time for people, and if you serve food, they are more likely to attend.
    • Find a good setting, such as a conference room, with good air flow and lighting. Configure the room so that all members can see each other. Provide nametags as well as refreshments. If your focus group is at lunch or dinnertime, be sure to provide food as well.
    • Set some ground rules for the participants that help foster participation and keep the session moving along appropriately. For example: 1. Stay focused on the subject/question, 2. Keep the momentum of the conversation going, and 3. Get closure on each question.
    • Make an agenda for the focus group. Consider the following: Welcome, review of agenda, review of the goal of the meeting, review of ground rules, introductions, questions and answers, wrap up.
    • Don’t count on your memory for information shared at the focus group. Plan to record the session with either an audio or video recorder. If this isn’t possible, involve a co-facilitator who takes good notes.

    Facilitating The Session:

    • Introduce yourself and your co-facilitator, if you have one.
    • Explain your need and reason for recording the focus group discussion.
    • Carry out the agenda.
    • Carefully word each question to the group. Before a group discussion, allow everyone a few minutes to carefully record his or her responses or answers. Then, facilitate discussion around the answers to each question, one at a time.
    • After the discussion of each question, reflect back to the group a summary of what you just heard. If you have a note-taker/co-facilitator, he or she may do this.
    • Ensure even participation among the group. If a few people are dominating the conversation, then call on others. Also, consider a round-table approach in which you go in one direction around the table, giving each person a chance to answer the question.
    • Close the session by thanking the participants and telling them that they will receive a copy of the report generated as a result of the discussion.

    Immediately After The Session:

    • Verify that the audio or video recorder worked throughout the entire session (if one was used).
    • Make any additional notes on your written notes that you need.
    • Write down any observations you made during the session, such as the nature of participation in the group, any surprises of the session, where and when the session was held, etc.

      Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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      Crossman, Ashley. "How To Use Focus Groups in Research." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/use-focus-groups-in-research-3026533. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, March 2). How To Use Focus Groups in Research. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/use-focus-groups-in-research-3026533 Crossman, Ashley. "How To Use Focus Groups in Research." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/use-focus-groups-in-research-3026533 (accessed January 17, 2018).