Guideline for Preparing your Focus Group

Over the past decade, we have been involved directly and indirectly in planning, running and managing data from many focus groups. A lot of things can go wrong during a focus group. People sometimes come to a focus group with an agenda. The response you get may not be linked directly to the question you asked. Other people may join in to a conversation that has already gone off track; all of which you have to painstakingly transcribe. The topic guide may ‘go out the window’ or you may run out of time. Voice representation may be a problem as the extrovert in the room hijacks proceedings while the quiet person in the corner, who may have very rich contributions to offer, gets squeezed out. People may talk over each other making the transcribers’ job impossible and you may loose high quality data as a result. Even if you get the data, the transcribing costs may increase as the transcribers’ hours clock up as a result of difficult to decipher audio files. Finally, I had a woman come up to me on the verge of tears at a recent introductory level NVivo workshop because she now realised that whilst she knew the names of the participants who had attended each focus group, she did not know who was speaking at any given point of the focus group and consequently had no way of linking her demographics to her cases. She now understood that this meant that a complete level of analysis was now not available to her. She could not cross tabulate her intangibles (attitudes, behaviours and beliefs) coded to nodes (themes) in NVivo to her tangibles; the very things that may influence those intangibles such as age, gender or a combination of these possible influencing factors.

It requires a great deal of work to arrange, conduct, transcribe and code a focus group; not to mention several focus groups. So what practical steps can one take to avoid the kind disasters outlined above? Just recently, I was hired as an external consultant for a project team who had the vision to avoid certain pitfalls associated with qualitative data collection before they surfaced. Many of the problems I have outlined which are associated with getting rich data from your focus groups have one common denominator; the facilitator. These are the guidelines that I drafted for them and I am happy to share them with site visitors.

Guidelines for conducting a focus group:

In selecting a facilitator, the requisite skill set is not necessarily that of someone who has conducted focus groups before unless they have ‘CAQDAS‘ experience. If they don’t have such experience they must have good skills in chairing a meeting and pay careful attention to these guidelines because they may not know the data analysis processes to which the data will be subjected, nor do they need to, only that there is a process which relies on the following:

  • Do not facilitate the focus group your self. It is very difficult to chair a meeting and think at the same time.
  • Participants should be addressed by their real names (they will be made anonymous later) because they will respond better than to a pseudonym
  • Each speaker MUST be identified before they speak for each and every contribution if you intend to link tangibles (demographics for example) to intangibles (content coded to a theme)
  • Participants must not talk over each other and this should be carefully explained before the session begins and managed carefully by the facilitator during the session
  • The topic guide must be carefully followed but interjection by the researcher should be facilitated as the facilitator may not understand the significance of such an interjection
  • The facilitator should keep the meeting on track because all contributions may need to be transcribed verbatim (although some may be coded from the audio file) even if they are off the point.
  • The researcher is now free to take field notes and observations during the session
  • Voice representation will be scientifically measured for the methodology chapter so the facilitator should ensure the each participant is afforded ample opportunity to speak
  • The topic guides for each of the differing stakeholder groups should have unique topics pertinent to each perspective but also common topics which are pertinent to all participant types.
  • Test the recording equipment just before the session begins as you would be surprised how often people have failed to record the session because of equipment malfunctioning or operator errors
  • Treat the first focus group as a pilot study. Transcribe it and code it before you conduct the next session. It will afford you an opportunity to test all of the above. I promise you, if you have to transcribe comments from people talking across each other about the weather, and then try to code it, it will focus your mind on getting better data the next time out.
  • Revise and amend these processes after the pilot focus group has been completed

If you have any questions on any of this, feel free to send me an e-mail


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