Focus Groups Tips for Beginners1
TCALL Occasional Research Paper No. 1

by Jacqueline M. Barnett, Graduate Assistant
Texas Center for Adult Literacy & Learning
2002

In the social sciences, focus groups are a more recent development than methods of collecting data such as surveys, questionnaires, and one-on-one interviews. The aim of this paper is to provide a very brief overview of focus group method.

History of Focus Groups

Focus groups originated in American marketing (Fern, 2001). By the middle of the twentieth century, advertising companies were hiring marketing firms to survey the public in order to find out what kinds of products and services were most appealing. While providing a great deal of useful information, the surveys did not explain why products held so little appeal for some people. Nor did they suggest how products currently on the market might be altered to elicit greater consumer support. Focus groups gained popularity because they allowed participants to explain the reasons behind their reaction to products. They were then adopted as policy setting instruments by politicians interested in responding to "the voice of the people." It took a while for academic research to catch on to the usefulness of focus groups, and even when academia did begin to realize their potential, there was initially no standard methodology for gathering data.

Purposes of Focus Groups

At first, scholars embraced focus groups half-heartedly. During the 1980s focus groups were used as a supplement to other methods (Fern, 2001). Information garnered from group interviews was used to construct surveys, or the focus groups would be considered as "pilot" interviews for a larger study with one-on-one interviews. It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the social sciences recognized focus group interviews as important data sources in themselves (Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996).

Focus groups are comprised of individuals assembled to discuss a particular subject, and differ from:

  • Nominal groups - researchers do not meet individually with members of an organization
  • Delphi groups - focus groups are not generally made up of trained experts
  • Brainstorming sessions--focus groups do not set out to generate new ideas.

Rather, focus groups are designed to gather information from the lay people. The goal in organizing focus groups is to investigate concerns, experiences, or attitudes/beliefs related to a clearly defined topic.

Research Uses for Focus Groups

Traditionally there have been several ways in which focus groups have been used to generate data. Merton & Kendal (1946) reported four uses for focus groups:

  1. Focus groups can help to generate hypotheses if researchers are exploring new territory. Stories told by focus group participants can be used in questionnaires or turned into hypothetical-type questions on surveys.
  2. Focus group findings can help to interpret survey responses if the focus groups are conducted mid-way through a mixed-method research project.
  3. Focus groups can offer insight into statistical findings--especially if unexpected outcomes occur (Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996).
  4. Focus groups are often conducted to assist with program development or evaluation. Focus group interviews can provide valuable insight into whether a program or service has achieved desired goals.

Today focus group data are used independently to generate knowledge. Focus groups are seen as valuable tools for exploring how points of view are constructed as well as how they are expressed (Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999). Focus group data can explain how stories, ideas, attitudes, and experiences function within a certain cultural setting, especially within an ethnographic study.

Focus groups are often a good method of data generation if the question to be addressed:

  • Involves gathering opinions and impressions from lay people or consumers
  • Affects many people the same way
  • Suggests that group discussions would help people to be frank

They are less useful if:

  • Deep and detailed responses are needed
  • Individuals' reactions are likely to vary, and this difference is important to capture
  • The topic is likely to involve private reactions

Method

Selecting participants.
Most focus group research relies on purposive sampling (Miles & Huberman, 1984), with researchers selecting participants based on the project and on the potential contributions of participants. Alternatively, participants can be randomly selected from a larger group that should be able to give insight into the topic. For example, if someone wanted to know more about a particular religious congregation purposive sampling, (i.e., obtaining a church membership listing and randomly selecting parishioners to participate) would be a good approach. Occasionally focus groups use convenience sampling (picking people the easiest and fastest way possible) but this strategy is not recommended.

Purposive sampling can be broken into specific strategies. Patton (1990) listed five of these:

  1. Extreme or deviant case sampling is used to identify a subgroup within a culture. For example, drug users might be recruited for a focus group on a needle exchange.
  2. Typical cases provide a cross section of a larger group.
  3. Maximum variation case sampling identifies individuals who are able to adapt to different kinds of contexts and conditions.
  4. Critical case sampling looks for individuals representing the most "critical" or relevant cases for transfer of findings to other related cases.
  5. Politically important or sensitive cases are used to investigate important issues through the use of individuals who have particular viewpoints.

It is important to emphasize that regardless of sampling method, focus groups do not provide generalizable results--that is, the findings cannot be applied to all people similar to the participants. The most useful measure of validity may well be transferability, which asks whether the results are presented in a way that allows other educators to judge whether the findings apply in their context.

Recruiting participants.
Recruitment is the process of gathering the group together in the same place at the same time. There are several ways to go about this. Membership lists are a great way to start. Another way is to find a contact who knows the target group. Using a previous example, the minister and deacons of the church might be willing to pass along the names of parishioners who would be willing to participate. Getting referrals from others, or through word of mouth, is a good means of gathering a sample. If one person is interested, she or he may be able to provide names of other potential participants. This type of recruiting is known as the snowball technique (Lindlof, 1995).

Other considerations include demographics. In conducting focus groups, it is important to consider if the focus group reflects the target population in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, political views, socioeconomic status, age, education, and whatever other dimensions might be relevant. If research is conducted in order to understand African-American women and their pain tolerance of arthritis, the sample probably should be comprised of mostly older African-American women.

A further question is whether to target a heterogeneous (everybody is different) or homogeneous (everybody is as similar as possible) sample. Most researchers prefer a homogeneous group with the common threads being the issues for discussion (Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996). In this approach it is believed that having too many different voices could detract from the overall purpose. An example might be a research project trying to understand how the police view the courts, resulting in a focus group of police officers meeting to discuss the court system. Those advocating heterogeneous groups argue that focus groups should capture a range of opinions, and that participants should feel able to present their perspective free from the fear of appearing different. In a heterogeneous group everybody is, by definition, different. If researchers wanted to discover if there were different views about the court system, they would invite a police officer, a judge, a lawyer, and so on.

It is important to consider whether focus group members will know each other or whether they will be complete strangers. The degree of familiarity unquestionably impacts group discussions. Most researchers prefer group members to be unfamiliar with one another in order to try to prevent acquaintances from influencing comments.

Focus group participants should be compensated if at all possible. If the research is without funding, researchers may find it difficult to compensate discussion members financially. However, refreshments consisting of beverages, cookies, chips, and other such snacks should be available throughout the entire session. A relaxed environment promotes openness and willingness to talk, two factors vital to a successful focus group.

Recording.
While there is merit in video recording focus groups (nonverbal communication behaviors are easily missed otherwise), this could be inappropriate. Videotaping is extremely invasive, and many participants may not be eager to share their comments and concerns if they can see the camera in the room and know that every movement can be captured. Experience reveals that an audio recorder is much less intrusive and less likely to stifle discussion. If audio recording, two recorders should be used just in case one tape fails.

Structure

Researchers disagree about the proper number of participants for a successful focus group. Many seasoned moderators prefer a group ranging from 8-12 (Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999), 6-12 (Lindlof, 1995), 6-8 (Krueger, 1998b), or 5-6 (Green & Hart, 1999). Brown (1999) says that the group should consist of 4-12 if the group is homogeneous and 6-12 if heterogeneous. A balance between the need to have enough people for a lively discussion and the danger of an overwhelming group size must be achieved.

Determining how many focus groups are needed for a study is more difficult than establishing the number of participants per group, and no one outside the research team can make that decision. Probably the best approach is to continue conducting groups until there is no repetition of themes and no new information is shared. This process should sound familiar to those who know of the constant comparative technique used in grounded theory (See Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Role of the Moderator

The moderator is vital to the success of the focus group. There are some simple tips that can help keep the moderator on track so that the discussion begins smoothly, flows well, maintains a level of organization, and ends easily. Additionally, the moderator's role begins long before the actual focus group discussion, for it is usually the moderator (or an assistant) who recruits the participants. An important note is that preferably moderators should have no real vested interest in outcomes is preferable as moderator rather than someone within the research circle. Not having an "agenda" or stake in the outcomes makes it easier to claim a genuinely non-manipulated outcome.

In advance of the focus group.
Reminder telephone calls should be placed the day or evening before the scheduled focus group to secure a commitment from the potential participants. Focus group participants should be informed that the group discussion will last for no longer than (for example) 1 hour 30 minutes, and that time frame must be adhered to. Many participants will start to exhibit signs of boredom or restlessness if kept too long. Telling people in advance of the ending time is likely to increase commitment and willingness to participate.

Beginning of the focus group.
The moderator needs to establish rapport immediately by thanking the participants for coming. As people arrive they should be directed to the name tags (if there are any) and refreshments. A crucial step in the research process is to get the participants to sign consent forms before the focus group begins. The moderator (or assistant) needs to explain that the notes and audiotapes (if the discussion is audio recorded) will be kept completely confidential and that pseudonyms will be used in place of real names. Also, it should be stressed that no other personally identifying information will be used.

Moderating the focus group.
Most scholars agree that moderators are not expected to be experts in the topic of discussion; and if they are, it is important that they do not insert opinions into the discussion (Baker & Hinton, 1999; Krueger, 1998; Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996). Probes should be used to clarify questions if the group members do not seem to be responding. After the introductions and general purpose of the focus group is reiterated, warm-up questions should be asked in order to facilitate discussion. Following a brief warm-up period, terms that will be used in the group talk should be mentioned and clarified, if needed. People should be informed that their responses are neither right nor wrong. The moderator's job is to let the group members know that it is okay to agree or disagree with others' responses.

The moderator should ask general, open-ended questions. As participants become more comfortable with contributing questions, the moderator can become more specific. When the time period is almost up or no new ideas are offered, the moderator should begin to wrap up the session by summarizing the discussion to make sure of what the participants said and how to interpret it. Finally, the moderator needs to provide a significant closing statement, thanking the participants for their time and assuring them that their responses will be kept completely confidential.

Analyzing the Data

Pre-analysis.
First and foremost, notes should be taken during the focus group by the moderator and by an assistant. This is crucial because moderators cannot observe the range of behaviors of the group considering they must facilitate the discussion, be focused on probes and follow-ups, as well as ensuring all the participants are given the opportunity to voice their comments. Even if the discussion is being audio recorded, notes should be taken. Important nonverbal behaviors, which can aid in interpretation, can be missed if notes are not taken.

As a final step before the actual analysis can begin, member checks help to ensure the moderator has understood focus group members. The moderator should leave enough time before the closing and dismissal of the focus group to clarify specific questions. This is the time to verify accuracy recording of information brought forward in the previous hour and a half.

Data Analysis

The analysis process includes summarizing the discussion immediately following the focus group. Because people can forget important details so easily, writing these field notes as soon as possible after the focus group has ended is imperative. Also, because researchers have the research questions in mind during the summing up process, salient themes of the discussion begin to emerge.

The tapes should be transcribed as soon after the focus group discussion as possible. Waiting until completion of all the groups is not necessary-- transcription and initial analysis of the first sets of tapes can only aid in moderating the following groups. While some argue that researchers do not need to do their own transcription, others are adamant that the quality of the analysis is improved if researchers transcribe their own data. Qualitative data analyses require many careful readings of transcripts, and as researchers transcribe their own data first-level analysis is actually occurring.

Method of coding.
Traditionally coding within a qualitative framework meant that researchers took different colored highlighters (some scholars have been known to use crayons) to copies of the original transcripts and used a different color for each code. This approach and also the one that implements scissors and cutting out different categories to make different piles are both widely used. With the technological advancements in computer software, there are data management packages available.

Whether computer software or highlighters are used, the process remains the same. Following the research questions as guides, every line, paragraph, or other section of text is coded for relevant themes. As themes are developed, the researcher assigns a working definition to each code. That way in going through the transcripts, the definition is continually being challenged, and some times new codes must be developed because the properties do not fit the text. Also, codes that are rarely used are dismissed and some categories are broadened to accommodate the lost code. Important to note is that this type of analysis is not linear, but circular. Constant comparison (See Glaser & Strauss, 1967) means that the researcher must continually compare the categories and codes of new transcripts with existing categories and codes in order to more fully develop the properties of the overarching categories for the individual codes. This process is on-going until saturation is reached. Simply put, saturation is the idea that no new codes or categories emerge and that coding more transcripts would only produce repetition of themes.

Conclusion

Focus groups have the potential to become a central approach in sociological and educational research, whether focused on the pragmatic end of evaluation or the abstract goal of theory building. The aim of this brief overview was to provide an introduction to the method and provide readers with a sense of the benefits and caveats attached to focus groups. Before conducting such groups readers are recommended to read more broadly on focus groups and think carefully about how appropriate focus groups are for their own work. When implemented correctly, however, focus groups can be an efficient and effective way to gain insights into social process.

References

Baker, R., & Hinton, R. (1999). Do focus groups facilitate meaningful participation in social research In (Eds.) Barbour, R. S., & Kitzinger, J. Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice (79-98)

Brown, J. B. (1999). The use of focus groups in clinical research. In (Eds.) Crabtree, B. F., & Miller, William L. Doing qualitative research (2nd ed.) (pp. 109-124). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Fern, E. F. (2001). Advanced focus group research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Green, J., & Hart, L. The impact of context on data. In (Eds.) Barbour, R. S., & Kitzinger, J. Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice (21-35).

Kitzinger, J., & Barbour, R. S. (1999). Introduction: The challenge and promise of focus groups. In (Eds.) Barbour, R. S., & Kitzinger, J. Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice (pp. 1-20). London: Sage.

Krueger, R. A. (1998). Moderating focus groups: Focus Group Kit 4. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Lindlof, T. R. (1995). Qualitative communication research methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Merton, R. K., & Kendall, P. L. (1946). The focused interview. American Journal of Sociology, 51, 541-557.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., & Sinagub, J. (1996). Focus group interviews in education and psychology. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

1. While most of the research note was written from experience in focus group research, the author did consult two excellent resources. The reader might find it helpful to consult the following books for more in-depth information.

Barbour, R. S., & Kitzinger, J. (1999). Developing focus group research: Politics, theory, and practice. London: Sage.

Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., & Sinagub, J. (1996). Focus group interviews in education and psychology. Thousand Oaks: Sage.