Tips for running effective focus groups

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.


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...




Considering and planning for qualitative focus groups

focus groups qualitative


This is the first in a two-part series on focus groups. This week, we are looking at some of the  why you might consider using them in a research project, and questions to make sure they are well integrated into your research strategy. Next week we will look at some practical tips for effectively running and facilitating a successful session.

Focus groups have been used as a research method since the 1950s, but were not as common in academia until much later (Colucci 2007). Essentially they are time limited sessions, usually in a shared physical space, where a group of individuals are invited to discuss with each other and a facilitator a topic of interest to the researcher.

These should not been seen as ‘natural’ group settings. They are not really an ethnographic method, because even if comprised of an existing group (for example of people who work together or belong to the same social group) the session exists purely to create a dialogue for research purposes.

Together with ‘focused’ or semi-structured interviews, they are one of the most commonly used methods in qualitative research, both in market research and the social sciences. So what situations and research questions are they appropriate for?

If you are considering choosing focus groups as an easy way to quickly collect data from a large number of respondents, think again! Although I have seen a lot of market research firms do a single focus group as the extent of their research, one group generates limited data on its own. It’s also false to consider data from a focus group being the same as interview data from the same number of people: there is a group dynamic which is usually the main benefit to adopting this approach. Focus groups are best at recording the interactions and debate between a group of people, not many separate opinions.

They are also very difficult to schedule and manage from a practical standpoint. The researcher must find a suitably large and quiet space that everyone can attend, and is at a mutually convenient time. Compared with scheduling one-on-one interviews, the practicalities are much more difficult: meeting in a café or small office is rarely a good venue. It may be necessary to hire a dedicated venue or meeting room, as well as proper microphones to make sure everyone’s voice can be heard in a recording. The numbers that actually show up on the day will always fluctuate, so its unusual for all focus groups to have the same number of participants.

Although a lot of research projects seem to just do 3 or 4 focus groups, it’s usually best to try for a larger number, because the dynamics and data are likely to be very different in each one. In general you are less likely to see saturation on complex issues, as things go ‘off the rails’ and participants take things in new directions. If managed right, this should be enlightening rather than scary, but you need to anticipate this possibility, and make sure you are planning to collect enough data to cover all the bases.

So, before you commit to focus groups in your qualitative methods, go through the questions below and make sure you have reasons to justify their inclusion. There isn’t a right answer to any of them, because they will vary so much between different research projects. But once you can answer these issues, you will have a great idea of how focus groups fit into your study, and be able to write them up for your methodology section.


Planning Groups

How accessible will focus groups be to your planned participants?  Are participants going to have language or confidence issues? Are you likely to get a good range of participation? If the people you want to talk to are shy or not used to speaking (in the language the researcher wants to conduct the session in) focus groups may not get everyone talking as much as you like.

Are there anonymity issues? Are people with a stigmatising condition going to be willing to disclose their status or experience to others in the group? Will most people already know each other (and their secrets) and some not? When working with sensitive issues, you need to consider these potential problems, and your ethics review board will want to know you’ve considered this too.

What size of group will work best, and is it appropriate to plan focus groups around pre-existing groups? Do you want to choose people in a group that have very different experiences to provoke debate or conflict? Alternatively you can schedule groups of people with similar backgrounds or opinions to better understand a particular subset of your population.



What will the format of your focus group be, just an open discussion? Or will you use prompts, games, ranking exercises, card games, pictures, media clippings, flash cards or other tools to get discussion and interactivity (see Colucci (2007)? These can be useful not just as a prompt, but as a point of commonality and comparison between groups. But make sure they are appropriate for the kind of group you want to work with, and they don’t seem forced or patronising. (Kitzinger 1994).


Last of all, think about how you are going to analyse the data. Focus groups really require an extra level of analysis: the dynamic and dialectic can be seen as an extra layer on what participants are revealing about themselves. You might also need to be able to identify individual speakers in the transcript and possibly their demographic details if you want to explore these.

What is the aim within your methodology: to generate open discussion, or confirm and detail a specific position? Often focus groups can be very revealing if you have a very loose theoretical grounding, or are trying to initially set a research question.

How will the group data triangulate as part of a mixed methodology? Will the same people be interviewed or surveyed? What explicitly will you get out of the focus groups that will uniquely contribute to the data?


So this all sounds very cautionary and negative, but focus groups can be a wonderful, rich and dynamic data tool, that really challenges the researcher and their assumptions. Finally, focus groups are INTENSE experiences for a researcher. There are so many things to juggle, including the data collection, facilitating and managing group dynamics, while also taking notes and running out to let in latecomers. It’s difficult to do with just one person, so make sure you get a friend or colleague to help out!


Quirkos can help you to manage and analyse your focus group transcriptions. If you have used other qualitative analysis software before, you might be surprised at how easy and visual Quirkos makes the analysis of qualitative text – you might even get to enjoy it! You can download a trial for free and see how it works, but there are also a bunch of video tutorials and walk-throughs so you quickly get the most out of your qualitative data.


Further Reading and References


Colucci, E., 2007, Focus groups can be fun: the use of activity-oriented questions in focus group discussions, Qual Health Res, 17(10),

Grudens-Schuck, N., Allen, B., Larson., 2004, Methodology Brief: Focus group fundamentals, Extension Community and Economic Development Publications. Book 12.

Kitzinger, J., 1994, The methodology of Focus Groups: the importance of interaction between research participants, Sociology of Health and Illness, 16(1),


Robinson, N., 1999, The use of focus group methodology with
selected examples from sexual health
research, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 905-913



Transcribing your own qualitative data

diy qualitative transcription

In a previous blog article I talked about some of the practicalities and costs involved in using a professional transcribing service to turn your beautifully recorded qualitative interviews and focus groups into text data ready for analysis. However, hiring a transcriber is expensive, and is often beyond the means of most post-graduate researchers.


There are also serious advantages to doing the transcription yourself that make a better end result and get you much closer to your data. In this article I’m going to go through some practical tips that should make doing transcription a little less painful.


But first, a little more on the benefits of transcribing your own data. If you were there in the room with the respondent, you asked the questions, and were watching and listening to the participant. Do the transcription soon after the interview and you are likely to remember words that might be muffled in the recording, points that the respondent emphasised by shaking their head – lots of little details to capture.


It’s important to remember that transcription is an interpretive act (Bailey 2008), you can’t just convert an interview into a perfect text version of that data. While this might be obvious when working between different languages where translation is required, I would argue that a transcriber always makes subjective decisions about misheard words, how to record pauses and inflictions, or unconsciously changes words or their order.


As I’ve mentioned before, you loose a lot of the nuance of an interview when moving to text, and the transcriber has to make choices about how to mitigate this: Was this hesitation or just pausing for breath? How should I indicate the participant banged on the table for emphasis? Capturing this non-verbal communication in a transcript can really change the interpretation in qualitative data, so I like it when this process is in the control of the researcher. For a lot more on these and other issues there is a review of the qualitative transcription literature by Davidson (2009).


What do I actually type?

In a word, everything: the questions, the answers, the hesitations and mumbles, and things that were communicated, but not said verbally.


First, some guidelines for what the transcription should look like, bearing in mind that there is no one standard. You can use a word processor, or a spreadsheet like Excel. It can be a little more difficult to get formatting right in a spreadsheet, for example you will need to use Shift+Return to make a new paragraph within a cell, and getting it to look right on a printed page is more of a challenge. Yet since interviews and especially focus groups will usually have more than one voice to assign text to, you need some way to structure the data.


In a spreadsheet you can use three columns: the first for an occasional time index (so you see where in the audio this section of text occurs), the second for name of voice, and the third widest one for text. While you can use a table to do the same thing in Word, spreadsheets will do auto-complete for your names, making things a bit faster. However, for just a one-on-one interview, it’s easy to just use a Q: / A: formatting for each respondent in a spreadsheet, and put periodic time stamps in brackets at the top of each page.


Second, record non-verbal data in a consistent way, usually in square brackets. For example [hesitates], [laughter], [bangs fist on table], or even when [coffee is delivered]. You may choose to use italics or bold type to show when someone puts emphasis on a word, but choose one or the other and be consistent.


Next, consider your system for indicating pauses. Usually a short pause is represented by three dots ‘…’ Anything longer is recorded in square brackets and roughly timed [5 second pause]. These pauses can show hesitation in the participant to answer a difficult question, and long pauses may have special meaning. There is actually a whole article on the importance of silences by Poland and Pederson (1998).


When you are transcribing, you also need to decide on the level of detail. Will you record every Um, Er, and stutter? In verbal speech these are surprisingly common. Most qualitative research does want this level of detail, but it is obviously more time consuming to type. You’ll often have corrections in the speech as well, commonly “I’ve… I’ll never say that ag... any more”. Do you include the first self correction? It’s clear in the audio the participant was going to say ‘again’ but changed themselves to ‘any more’ - should I record this? Decide on the level of detail early on, and be consistent.


Sometimes people can go completely off topic, or there will be a section in the audio where you were complaining about the traffic, ordering coffee, or a phone call interrupted things. If you decide it’s not relevant to capture, just indicate with time markings what happened in square brackets: [cup smashed on the floor, 5min to clear up].


Once you are done with an interview, it’s a good idea to listen to it back, reading through the transcript and correcting any mistakes. The first few times you will be surprised at how often you swapped a few words, or got strange typos.



So how long will it all take?

Starting out with all this can be daunting, especially if you have a large number of interviews to transcribe. A good rule of thumb is that transcribing an interview verbatim will take between 3 and 6 times longer than the audio. So for an hour of recording, it could take as little as three hours, or as much as six to type up.


This sounds horrifying, and it is. I’m quite a fast typer, and have done quite a bit of transcription before, but I average between 3x and 4x the audio time. If you are slow at typing, need to pause the audio a lot, or have to put in a lot of extra descriptive detail it can take a lot longer. The tips below should help you get towards the 3x benchmark, but it’s worth planning out your time a little before you begin.


If you have twenty interviews each lasting on average 1 hour, you should probably plan for at least 60 hours of transcription time. You are looking at nearly 9 days or two weeks of work at a standard 9-5 work day. I don’t say this to frighten you, just to mentally acclimatise you to the task ahead!


It’s also worth noting that transcription is very intensive work. You will be frantically typing as fast as you can, and it requires extreme mental concentration to listen and type simultaneously, while also watching for errors and fixing typos. I don’t think most people could just do two or three hour sessions at a time without going a little crazy! So you need to plan in some breaks, or at least some different non-typing work.


If this sounds insurmountable, don’t panic. Just spread out the work, especially if you can do the transcripts after each interview, instead of in one huge batch. This is generally better since you can review one interview before you do the next one, giving you a chance to change how you ask questions and cover any gaps. Transcription can also be quite engrossing (since you can’t possibly do anything else at the same time), and it’s nice to see the hours ticking off.




So how can you make this faster?

You need to set up your computer (or laptop) to be a professional transcribing station, where you can hear the audio, start and stop it easily, and type comfortably for a long period of time.


Even if you type really fast, you won’t be able to keep up with the speed that people speak, meaning you will have to frequently start and stop the audio to catch up. Most professionals will use a ‘foot-pedal’ to do this, so that they don’t have to stop typing, come out of the word processing software and pause an audio player. Even if you are playing audio from a dictaphone next to you, going away from the keyboard, stopping and starting the buttons on the dictaphone and coming back to type again quickly becomes tedious.


A foot-pedal lets you start and stop the audio by tapping with your foot (or toe) and often has additional buttons to rewind a little (very useful) or fast-forward through the audio. Now, these cost around £30/$40 or more, but can be a worthwhile investment. However, it’s also worth checking to see if you can borrow one from a colleague, or even if your department or library has one for hire.


But if you are a cheapskate like me, there are other ways to do this. Did you know that you can have two or more keyboards attached to a computer, and they will both work? An extra keyboard (with a USB connector) can cost as little as £10/$15 if you don’t already have a spare lying around, and can be plugged into a laptop as well. Put it on the floor, and you can set up one of the keys as a ‘global shortcut’ in an audio player like VLC. Here’s a forum detailing how to set up a certain key so that it will start and stop the audio even if you are typing in another programme. Put your second keyboard on the floor, and tap your chosen key with your toe to start and stop! Even if you only use one keyboard, you can set a shortcut in VCL (for example Alt+1), and every time you press that combination it will play or pause the audio, even if VLC player is hidden.


There’s another advantage to using VLC: it can slow down your recordings as they are played back! Once your audio is playing, click on the Playback menu item, then Speed. Change to Slower, and listen as your participants magically start talking like sleepy drunks! This helps me more than anything, because I can slow down the speech to a level that means I can type constantly without getting behind. This method does warp the speech, and having the setting too high can make it difficult to understand. However, the less you have to pause and stop the audio to catch up with your typing, the faster your transcription will go.


You can also do this with audio software like Audacity. Here, import your audio file, and click on Effect, and Change Tempo. Drag the slider to the left to slow down the speech (try 20% – 50%) without changing the ‘pitch’ so everyone doesn’t end up sounding like Barry White. You can then save the file with your desired speed, and the quality can be a little better than the live speed changes in VLC.


General tips for good typing can help too. Watch the screen as you type, not your fingers, so that you can quickly pick up on mistakes. Learn to use all your fingers to type, don’t just ‘hunt and peck’ - a quick typing tutorial might save you hours in the long run if you don’t do this already.


Last of all, consider your posture. I’m serious! If you are going to be hunched up and typing for days and days, bad posture is going to make you ache and get stressed. Make sure your desk and chair are the right height for you, try using a proper keyboard if working from a laptop (or at least prop up the laptop to a good angle). Make sure the lighting is good, there is no screen glare, and use a foot rest if this helps the position of your back. Scrunched up on a sofa with a laptop in your lap for 60 hours is a great way to get cramp, back-ache and RSI. Try and take a break at least every half an hour: get up and stretch, especially your hands and arms.


So, you have your beautiful and detailed transcripts? Now you can bring them into Quirkos to analyse them! Quirkos is ideal for students doing their first qualitative analysis project, as it makes coding and analysis of text visual, colourful and easy to learn. There’s a free trial on our website, and you can bring in data from lots of different sources to work with.


An overview of qualitative methods

There are a lot of different ways to collect qualitative data, and this article just provides a brief summary of some of the main methods used in qualitative research. Each one is an art in its own right, with various different techniques, definitions, approaches and proponents.

More on each one will follow in later articles, and it’s worth remembering that these need to be paired with the right questions, sampling, and analysis to get good results.


Possibly the richest, and most powerful tool: talking to someone directly. The classic definition is “conversations with a purpose“, the idea being that there is something you are interested in, you ask questions about it, and someone gives useful responses.

There are many different styles for example how structured your questions are (this paper has a wonderful and succinct overview in the introduction). These can range from a rigid script where you ask the same questions every time, or completely open discussion, where the researcher and respondent have freedom to shape the conversation. A common middle ground are semi-structured interviews, which often have a topic guide, listing particualar issues to discuss, but will allow questions for clarification, or to follow up on an interesting tangent.

Participant Observation

Often the remit of ethnography or sociology, participant observation usually involves watching, living or even participating in the daily life of research subjects. However, it can also involve just watching people in a certain setting, such as a work meeting, or using a supermarket.

This is probably the most time intensive and potentially problematic method, as it can involve weeks or even years of placement for a researcher, often on their own. However, it does produce some of the richest data, as well as a level of depth that can really help explain complex issues. This chapter is a fine starting point.

Focus groups

A common method used in market research, where a researcher leads a group discussion on a particular topic. However, it is also a powerful tool for social researchers, especially when looking at group dynamics, or the reactions of particular groups of people. It’s obviously important to consider who is chosen for the group, and how the interactions of people in the group affect the outcome (although this might be what you are looking for).

It’s usually a quicker and cheaper way of gauging many reactions and opinions, but requires some skill in the facilitator to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard, and that people stay on track. Also a headache for any transcribers who have to identify different voices from muffled audio recordings!

Participant Diaries

Getting people to write a diary for a research project is a very useful tool, and is commonly used in looking at taboo behaviours such as drug use or sexuality, not just because researchers don’t have to ask difficult questions face-to-face, but that data can be collected over a long period of time. If you are trying to find out how often a particular behaviour occurs, a daily or weekly record is likely to be more accurate than asking someone in a single interview (as in the studies above).

There are other benefits to the diary method: not least that the participant is in control. They can share as much or as little as they like, and only on topics they wish to. It can also be theraputic for some people, and is more time flexible. Diaries can be paper based, electronic, or even on a voice recorder if there are literacy concerns. However, researchers will probably need to talk to people at the beginning and end of the process, and give regular reminders.


Probably one of the most common qualitative methods are the open ended questions on surveys, usually by post, on-line, or ‘guided’ by someone with a clipboard. Common challenges here are

  • Encouraging people to write more than one word, but less than an essay
  • Setting questions carefully so they are clear, but not leading
  • Getting a good response rate and
  • Knowing who has and hasn’t responded

The final challenge is to make sure the responses are useful, and integrating them with the rest of the project, especially quantitative data.

Field notes

Sometimes the most overlooked, but most vaulable source of information can be the notes and field diaries of researchers themselves. These can include not just where and when people did interviews or observations, but crucial context, like the people who refused to take part, and whether a interviewee was nervous. It need not just be for ethnographers doing long field work, it can be very helpful in organising thoughts and work in smaller projects with multiple researchers.

As part of a reflexive method, it might contain comments and thoughts from the researcher, so there can be a risk of autobiographical overindulgence. It is also not easy to integrate ‘data’ from a research diary with other sources of information when writing up a project for a particular output.


This is just a whistle-stop introduction, but more on each of these to follow…