In the last blog article I looked at some of the justifications for choosing focus groups as a method in qualitative research. This week, we will focus on some practical tips to make sure that focus groups run smoothly, and to ensure you get good engagement from your participants. A future blog focuses on online focus groups
1. Make sure you have a helper!
It’s very difficult to run focus groups on your own. If you are wanting to layout the room, greet people, deal with refreshment requests, check recording equipment is working, start video cameras, take notes, ask questions, let in late-comers and facilitate discussion it’s much easier with two or even three people for larger groups. You will probably want to focus on listening to the discussion, not have to take notes and problem solve at the same time. Having another facilitator or helper around can make a lot of difference to how well the session runs, as well as how much good data is recorded from it.
2. Check your recording strategy
Most people will record audio and transcribe their focus groups later. You need to make sure that your recording equipment will pick up everyone in the room, and also that you have a backup dictaphone and batteries! Many more tips in this blog post article. If you are planning to video the session, think this through carefully.
Do you have the right equipment? A phone camera might seem OK, but they usually struggle to record long sessions, and are difficult to position in a way that will show everyone clearly. Special cameras designed for gig and band practice are actually really good for focus groups, they tend to have wide-angle lenses and good microphones so you don’t need to record separate audio. You might also want to have more than one camera (in a round-table discussion, someone will always have their back to the camera. Then you will want to think about using qualitative analysis software like Transana that will support multiple video feeds.
You also need to make sure that video is culturally appropriate for your group (some religions and cultures don’t approve of taking images) and that it won’t make people nervous and clam up in discussion. Usually I find a dictaphone less imposing than a camera lens, but you then loose the ability to record the body language of the group. Video also makes it much easier to identify different speakers!
3. Consent and introductions
I always prefer to do the consent forms and participant information before the session. Faffing around with forms to sign at the start or end of the workshop takes up a lot of time best used for discussion, and makes people hurried to read the project information. E-mail this to people ahead of time, so at least they can just sign on the day, or bring a completed form with them. I really feel that participants should get the option to see what they are signing up for before they agree to come to a session, so they are not made uncomfortable on the day if it doesn't sound right for them. However, make sure there is an opportunity for people to ask any questions, and state any additional preferences, privately or in public.
4. Food and drink
You may decide not to have refreshments at all (your venue might dictate that) but I really love having a good spread of food and drink at a focus group. It makes it feel more like a party or family occasion than an interrogation procedure, and really helps people open up.
While tea, coffee and biscuits/cookies might be enough for most people, I love baking and always bring something home-baked like a cake or cookies. Getting to talk about and offer food is a great icebreaker, and also makes people feel valued when you have spent the time to make something. A key part of getting good data from a good focus group is to set a congenial atmosphere, and an interesting choice of drinks or fruit can really help this. Don’t forget to get dietary preferences ahead of time, and consider the need for vegetarian, diabetic and gluten-free options.
5. The venue and layout
A lot has already been said about the best way to set out a focus group discussion (see Chambers 2002), but there are a few basic things to consider. First, a round or rectangle table arrangement works best, not lecture hall-type rows. Everyone should be able to see the face of everyone else. It’s also important not to have the researcher/facilitator at the head or even centre of the table. You are not the boss of the session, merely there to guide the debate. There is already a power dynamic because you have invited people, and are running the session. Try and sit yourself on the side as an observer, not director of the session.
In terms of the venue, try and make sure it is as quiet as possible, and good natural light and even high ceilings can help spark creative discussion (Meyers-Levy and Zhu 2007).
6. Set and state the norms
A common problem in qualitative focus group discussions is that some people dominate the debate, while others are shy and contribute little. Chambers (2002) just suggests to say at the beginning of the session this tends to happen, to make people conscious of sharing too much or too little. You can also try and actively manage this during the session by prompting other people to speak, go round the room person by person, or have more formal systems where people raise their hands to talk or have to be holding a stone. These methods are more time consuming for the facilitator and can stifle open discussion, so it's best to use them only when necessary.
You should also set out ground rules, attempting to create an open space for uncritical discussion. It's not usually the aim for people to criticise the view of others, nor for the facilitator to be seen as the leader and boss. Make these things explicit at the start to make sure there is the right atmosphere for sharing: one where there is no right or wrong answer, and everyone has something valuable to contribute.
7. Exercises and energisers
To prompt better discussion when people are tired or not forthcoming, you can use exercises such as card ranking exercises, role play exercises and prompts for discussion such as stories or newspaper articles. Chambers (2002) suggests dozens of these, as well as some some off-the-wall 'energizer' exercises: fun games to get people to wake up and encourage discussion. More on this in the last blog post article. It can really help to go round the room and have people introduce themselves with a fun fact, not just to get the names and voices on tape for later identification, but as a warm up.
Also, the first question, exercise or discussion point should be easy. If the first topic is 'How did you feel when you had cancer?' that can be pretty intimidating to start with. Something much simpler, such as 'What was hospital food like?' or even 'How was your trip here?' are topics everyone can easily contribute to and safely argue over, gaining confidence to share something deeper later on.
8. Step back, and step out
In focus groups, the aim is usually to get participants to discuss with each-other, not a series of dialogues with the facilitator. The power dynamics of the group need to reflect this, and as soon as things are set in motion, the researcher should try and intervene as little as possible – occasionally asking for clarification or to set things back on track. Thus it's also their role to help participants understand this, and allow the group discussion to be as co-interactive as possible.
“When group dynamics worked well the co-participants acted as co-
researchers taking the research into new and often unexpected directions and engaging in interaction which were both complementary (such as sharing common experiences) and argumentative” - Kitzinger 1994
9. Anticipate depth
Focus groups usually last a long time, rarely less than 2 hours, but even a half or whole day of discussion can be appropriate if there are lots of complex topics to discuss. It's OK to consider having participants do multiple focus groups if there is lots to cover, just consider what will best fit around the lives of your participants.
At the end of these you should find there is a lot of detailed and deep qualitative data for analysis. It can really help digesting this to make lots of notes during the session, as a summary of key issues, your own reflexive comments on the process, and the unspoken subtext (who wasn't sharing on what topics, what people mean when they say, 'you know, that lady with the big hair').
You may also find that qualitative analysis software like Quirkos can help pull together all the complex themes and discussions from your focus groups, and break down the mass of transcribed data you will end up with! We designed Quirkos to be very simple and easy to use, so do download and try for yourself...
Resources and reading
Muijeen, Kasorn; Kongvattananon, Puangpaka; Somprasert, Chomchuen. (2020), "The key success factors in focus group discussions with the elderly for novice researchers: a review", Journal of Health Research, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 359-371. https://doi.org/10.1108/JHR-05-2019-0114
Grudens-Schuck, Nancy; Allen, Beverlyn; Grudens-Schuck, Nancy;
Larson, Kathlene. (2004) Methodology Brief: Focus Group Fundamentals. Dept. Extension Community and Economic Development. Iowa State University. https://dr.lib.iastate.edu/handle/20.500.12876/33242