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10 Focus Groups: Learning Objectives. describe the history and uses of focus groups list the elements of an interview guide for focus groups summarize the advantages and disadvantages of focus group methods in public health list design issues for focus group activities

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10 focus groups learning objectives
10 Focus Groups: Learning Objectives

describe the history and uses of focus groups

list the elements of an interview guide for focus groups

summarize the advantages and disadvantages of focus group methods in public health

list design issues for focus group activities

enumerate moderator and observer/note taker techniques

participate in or observe a focus group in class

natural groups
Natural Groups


  • people doing laundry by the river
  • mother’s club
  • men gathered around tree to play cards
  • teenagers hanging around outside a 7-11
  • people in a laundromat
  • people at a karoke bar
  • patients in a waiting room at a dentist office
natural groups5
Natural Groups:

usually more heterogeneous than you would like, but used a lot because they are there

in modern developed countries, there are fewer opportunities for natural groups, because of the way we have been isolated by technology

focus group facilitated group discussion on a focused topic
Focus group: facilitated group discussion on a focused topic

Huge industry in US

Propaganda comprises 1/7th of our economy

Hollywood studies test-market violent films using focus groups aged 13-16 and even recruit children as young as 9 to evaluate story concepts, commercials, theatrical trailers and rough cuts for R-rated movies (NYT 000927)

Term applied to broad array of group exercises (buttons pushed watching election debates)


first used to evaluate effectiveness of war time propaganda over 50 years ago

key feature if a focus group is going well the participants will interact amongst themselves
KEY FEATURE: if a focus group is going well, the participants will interact amongst themselves

Group interaction produces data and insights less likely without the interaction found in a group

Use a moderator and a recorder

when to consider using focus groups
When to consider using focus groups?

Understanding some issue from specific population’s perspective

Generate hypotheses based on informants’ insights

Survey instrument development

when to consider using focus groups11
When to consider using focus groups?

Formative research: needs assessment

Educational materials pre-testing

Health promotion techniques

Evaluating research sites, study populations, or programs

Exploration of interpretation of research results

Community participation or mobilization

Orienting oneself to a new field

advantages of focus groups
Advantages of focus groups

Does not discriminate between literates & non-literates

Can encourage participation from those who are reluctant to be interviewed on their own

Can encourage contributions from those who feel they have nothing to say, or are characterized as unresponsive

when should you consider using another data collection method types of topics
When should you consider using another data collection method? Types of topics

Opinions with unknown basis in behavior or little/no personal experience

Abstract or complex ideas

When participants would not actively or easily discuss the topic of interest

when should you consider using another data collection method types of respondents
When should you consider using another data collection method? Types of respondents



Severe mental illness

ethical issues
Ethical issues

use of names/identification

Who sees data

Tape recording & data management

video taping is much much more intrusive, less acceptable so don’t do it

  • is much more difficult to analyze, better to have printed transcripts

Inherent invasion of privacy issues

conduct enough groups
In geographic regions where meaningful difference felt to exist

climate, weather,

local economic conditions,

local lifestyle,

political leanings,

level of literacy

Pre-testing where change order of materials presented

Conduct enough groups
smaller groups expect
Smaller groups expect

greater depth of response from each participant

highly sensitive to dynamics between individuals

use a smaller group when

  • topics are complex, or intense (e.g. child abuse perpetrators or victims)
  • participants have expertise on the topic, or have authority or power, since they may be irritated if they do not have enough time to say what they feel is important
larger groups expect
Larger groups expect

respondents may speak longer, with irrelevant information, when they finally get an opportunity to speak

frustration or dissatisfaction among group members, because of inability to get a turn to speak, with resulting lower quality & quantity of output

larger groups expect26
Larger groups expect

low-level participation problems, need more moderator involvement

more tendency for side conversation between respondents

dominant/submissive relationships evolve

more generation of ideas

generally harder to do well

composition sampling of groups
Composition (sampling) of groups

Homogeneity to avoid conflict, and refusals to share opinions-- How much is necessary?

foster discussion; so that participants are comfortable with each other.

avoid ‘experts’ who can dominate

often useful to have a screening questionnaire for participants

want them to share a common interest in the topic & feel comfortable together

factors that can lead to problematic heterogeneity
Factors that can lead toproblematic heterogeneity


  • on some issues, having men and women can be OK, unless there is considerable gender based disagreement
  • explore with both types of groups


life stage, Age, new mothers cf older mothers, or mothers with large family


factors that can lead to problematic heterogeneity29
Factors that can lead to problematic heterogeneity

user status,

  • users of a product or practitioners, or non- practitioners
  • sometimes can get contrasts if include both, especially if there is no social stigma

level of expertise/experience,

  • those who have used a product, or practiced a behavior for a long time may be quite different from a novice
factors that can lead to problematic heterogeneity30
Factors that can lead to problematic heterogeneity

marital status,

  • use of contraceptives among married and unmarried women


sometimes some heterogeneity can be useful, e.g. young & old

friends to include or not
Friends: to include or not?

literature says people in a focus group should not know one another

some people may not meet with others they do not know

in many communities it is impossible to find strangers, everyone knows each other, yet focus groups can be run successfully there

setting of the groups
Setting of the groups



  • avoid noisy areas so respondents can hear one another & moderator can hear all respondents, can be problem when hold them in situ so have to find quietest spot

accessible to respondents, culturally conducive for the participants

  • if people travel a long way, this could affect group results
  • a brothel, a pasture, a farm field
setting of the groups34
Setting of the groups

Any external observers?

  • if so, have two-way mirror, or set up partitions, or adjacent rooms with open doorways, make this clear to the participants (marketing does this)

Neutral sites, but familiar, don’t bring them into your office

  • schools or government buildings may induce a desire to respond “correctly”
  • natural environments, convenient locations conducive to conversations with familiar surroundings, may enhance quality of data
seating arrangements
Seating Arrangements

avoid designating status, e.g. at head of table, next to moderator

  • hunkering on the floor may be appropriate in many settings

enable moderator to have good eye contact with all respondents, and for each respondent to be in sight of all other participants (harder with larger groups)

visible name tags (first name or pseudonyms) can help calling on people by name

recruiting participants
Recruiting participants

common source of failure, too few people show up, 1 or 2 or 3, like a response rate in a survey

  • use key community leaders, rather than unknown person to approach participants
  • advertising in local radio station, print media, generally less successful
  • repeated contacts, a single phone call is not sufficient, let them know they will be contacted later to remind them at the initial contact
  • mail reminders, make additional phone calls, at least the night before

paying people

  • usually focus group more important to the researcher than to the participant
  • market researchers pay
  • often social researchers don’t have the funds

other incentives

  • gives participants a voice on issues that affect them (psychological) (stakeholders)
  • social or professional interaction among peers
  • food
  • sometimes women may find it necessary to bring a friend
over recruit strategy especially for marginalized participants
Over-recruit strategy, especially for marginalized participants

such as prostitutes

sometimes women may find it necessary to bring a friend

if you offer monetary incentives you might over-recruit, and if get too many people, pay the ones who don’t participate

duration of group
Duration of group

Attention span, until they get tired

Time of day, people tend to be less bright in afternoon (when this class is held)

Maximum start to finish = 2 hrs (consider break)

focus group discussions field guide
Focus Group Discussions Field Guide

have document like an ethnographic field guide, sometimes called a topic guide

summary statement of issues & objectives to cover in a focus group

road map and memory aid for moderator

often have initial question to which all participants asked to respond

focus group discussions field guide common errors
Focus Group Discussions Field Guide common errors:

mostly questions are of interest to the researcher, and not to the participant

  • start with what is of interest to the participants, will generate lively discussion
  • then shiftto researcher’s central interests, when group members feel comfortable sharing & comparing their experiences & opinions

have too many questions so try to push group along, rather than explore

focus group discussions field guide common errors42
Focus Group Discussions Field Guide common errors:

best to outline question areas or issues, include special probes under each of key issues

  • detail depends on experience of moderator

may need different topic guides for focus groups on same subject, with different composition of respondents

  • e.g. safer sex behavior among teenagers of different sex or sexual identity
topics to include
Topics to include

don’t cover too many issues or participants will become bored and fatigued, group will jump around unnaturally

  • if too many issues, suggests preparatory research hasn’t been sufficiently focused, or need a different method at this stage
  • eliminate questions that are “nice to know”, but not relevant to research objectives
  • eliminate questions such as “how many” or “how often” that could be better addressed in a quantitative study
topics move from general to specific
Topics move from general to specific

flow of group is more natural

analyst has framework for comments made in group

key issues can emerge naturally

Order topics to avoid putting respondents in irreversible situations or verbal “dead ends”

  • e.g. if talking about legislating gun control in Montana, and find out one person is a member of the Montana Militia
introduction warm up
Introduction, warm-up

Thanks for coming, your presence is important

Describe what a focus group is

Describe role of moderator, recorder


state purpose of group, that interest is in idea, comments, suggestions

no right or wrong answers

all comments welcome

feel free to disagree with one another, we want to have many points of view


explain use of audio/video tape, and confidentiality

  • sometimes having each person speak their name, or a pseudonym, record that and play it back can break the ice here

tell people they can speak without waiting for moderator to call on them

ask people to speak one at a time

tell people they can interrupt the moderator, who may want to move the discussion along

self introduction
Self Introduction

ask each participant to introduce self, say a little about themselves

can use pseudonyms,

body of discussion
Body of discussion


  • moderator could make a statement such as
    • how did your learning you have panic attacks change your life?

Natural progression across topics

  • what ways have you notice your body changing since you began taking Panban®?

OK to overlap between topics

body of discussion52
Body of discussion

again avoid why questions


  • we have been talking about taking drugs for panic attacks, I’d now like to look at other ways of dealing with this problem

Using the guide during the FGD -- probing; relevant deviations

body of discussion53
Body of discussion

Ranking at the end can sometimes be helpful

giving information

  • sometimes moderator has to spend a great deal of time giving information, when seen as an expert, provider of info, A REASON TO NOT HAVE AN EXPERT as moderator

“before we end, I’d like to go around the room once more and ask each of you if there is anything else you would like to say about the idea of labial frenulum stimulation as we’ve described it for a way of coping with panic attacks

Questions and answers

Don't forget thank you for time and insights

moderators qualities and experience of this person are critical ingredient

generally moderator is not the Achilles Heel of FGD, it is selection & recruitment

  • facilitator and moderator are different terms for same thing

note taker could be an alternate moderator, takes notes, feeds ideas/perspectives to moderator

moderator characteristics style
Moderator characteristics style

KEY: can the moderator encourage participants to talk about this topic?

  • can sometimes be a professional, often is a “group facilitator”
  • sensitive topics may require a moderator whose background can put participants at ease
  • Moderator probing appropriate & effective
  • Ability to think through contingencies vs. thinking/interpreting literally
moderator characteristics style57
Moderator characteristics style

KEY: can the moderator encourage participants to talk about this topic?

Ability to put others at ease; non-threatening

Active listening, not an interviewer

  • Balance between understanding empathy and disciplined detachment
  • understand your bias, it may be hard to avoid projecting that
  • Enthusiasm, be supportive, and not judgmental
moderator characteristics style58
Moderator characteristics style

KEY: can the moderator encourage participants to talk about this topic?

well versed on subject matter and on specific objectives of research, especially for complex questions

sometimes for highly technical or controversial material, use a pair of moderators

moderator level of involvement
Moderator Level of involvement

Low is good for exploration

Low participation -- exploratory research goals; good for content analysis

High is good for focus

High participation -- externally generated agenda (e.g. compare results for a new group or with narrowly defined research question)

same or variable moderators for several groups
Same or variable moderators for several groups

comparability vs. seniority problems

some techniques for moderators
Some techniques for moderators:

Build personal context

Top-of-mind associations

Probing obvious terms ("What does 'it's hard to do that' mean to you?"; "What about it is good?"; "In what way is it easy to use the pill?"; "How can you tell that the medication works?")

Conceptual mapping (how group terms)


some techniques for moderators62
Some techniques for moderators:

Role playing

Highlight contradictions


Mirroring / Rephrase and ask for verification


"I'm confused"

Third person

Using the guide -- Tracking = returning to guide throughout discussion (useful for transitions)

cost expensive
Cost: expensive

time intensive, require skilled researchers

may be cheaper than a larger number of informant interviews to get comparable info, but sometimes not so

planning, analysis take considerable cost

administrators often surprised at price-tag

focus group discussions reports and data analysis
Focus Group Discussions Reports and Data Analysis

team approach to analysis, especially if cultural factors are a focus of research

Report preparation meeting immediately after FGD

Define structure of field report

debus handbook for excellent in focus group research

Very practical material

On reserve in library

other students to take notes
Other students to take notes,
  • note techniques used,
  • evaluate effort



Thank you for taking the time to join us today.

I'm SB and I've been commissioned by the Dean's office to see what can be done to help graduate students cope with stress.

________ is here to help me as a recorder

You've been selected for this effort, I understand because you are known to have very successful ways of coping with stress

I'm going to ask you to write your first names on this tent-card so people can call on each other by name, I hope that is OK with you

We want to understand your experiences as a graduate student, the stress you perceive, and ways in which you deal with it.

There are no right or wrong answers to questions asked, we are interested in your opinions and comments, and I expect you may have differing points of view.

Don't feel like you have to respond but if you want to follow up on something someone else has said, agree or disagree, or give an example, please feel free to do that.

Don't feel you have to respond to me all the time. I'm here to ask questions, listen, and make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate

Initial Question

Increasingly studies show that stress causes health problems and recreation is often an important way to cope with stress. The School is interested in student perspectives on recreation and activities to deal with stress and how it might facilitate these.

Can each of you respond to how you deal with the stress of being a graduate student?

Can you give me an example of ways you have used university facilities or people to help you cope?


would you explain further?

can you give me an example of what you mean?

please tell me more

say more

uh huh

is there anything else?

please describe what you mean

I don't understand

does anyone else see it differently

has anyone else had a different experience?

are there other points of view?

Later on:

are there any other ideas or thoughts or experiences any of you wish to describe?

do you think we have missed anything in the discussion?


some of the ideas I have heard expressed are:

thank you all for taking part, it has been very valuable

next tuesday
  • Other group activities
    • Nominal groups