50 Guidelines for Conducting Focus Groups
Have you just been tasked with conducting a series of focus groups for your agency, or for a client? Perhaps you’re looking for someone to conduct the groups but aren’t sure how to frame your request. Or maybe you’re using focus groups to collect data for your dissertation and have run into a problem.
If so, I hope the following 50 guidelines I developed from the hundreds of experiences I’ve had designing and conducting focus groups will be helpful.
1. Decide who will be included and who will be excluded from your focus groups before you start recruiting participants.
2. Clearly spell out the purpose of the focus group and what will be expected of participants in early conversations with them.
3. Over-invite participants and create an “alternate” list; things always come up at the last minute that prevent a few folks from attending.
4. Offer a respectful incentive of no less than $50 per participant.
5. Consider homogeneity: the more alike participants feel, the more they will open up and share their thoughts with each other.
6. Consider diversity: if participants are too much alike it is unlikely there will be much diversity of opinion.
7. Plan to spend about three hours recruiting for every participant you need to recruit from the community.
8. Distribute flyers widely and be ready to make changes and reprint the flyers if they don’t net interest immediately.
9. Stop and talk to key informants if recruitment efforts are not working to see if they have insights that might help you change course.
10. Screen potential participants to be sure they meet ALL of your selection criteria before inviting them into the focus group.
11. Identify key contacts that know the community or target population and are willing to help you recruit—they have insights and connections you don’t.
12. Recruit in person when possible—it’s way more effective than flyers and emails.
13. Extend your extreme gratitude to all who helped you recruit—you couldn’t have done it without them.
14. Hold separate groups if there is a chance participants will interpret topics differently or feel uncomfortable talking about certain topics in each other’s presence because of who they are (gender; race; age, etc.).
15. Never include more than ten people in one group: five to seven is ideal; fewer if you are conducting groups with experts.
16. Separate people of different status into different groups (e.g., boss and employee; parent and child; doctor and nurse)
17. Do not include two of the same family in one group; they will either duplicate each others’ comments or inhibit each others’ contribution.
18. Hold three groups on each topic; it usually takes at least three focus groups to reach saturation (you’re not hearing anything new) on any one topic.
19. Develop a one-page schedule that includes information on all the groups in the study: inclusion criteria, date and time, location and address, facilitator and co-facilitator, community and contact name and information.
20. Hold groups at convenient times for participants: evenings, weekends, early mornings (e.g. doctors, teachers), non-holidays.
21. Provide a light meal and a beverage for participants if the group is held over the lunch or dinner hour.
22. Provide childcare and transportation for low-income participants: some will not be able to make it otherwise.
23. Hold groups in a familiar public setting that is convenient, non-threatening for participants, and has ample parking and/or is on a bus line.
24. Arrange for a comfortable room that has a privacy door and where the group will be uninterrupted.
25. Write good questions: “A question well-written is one half-answered.”
26. Don’t ask too many questions–seven well-worded questions are plenty.
27. Make all questions open-ended; “yes/no” questions won’t lead the discussion anywhere.
28. Don’t ask philosophical questions—they’re too open-ended.
29. Make questions short, straight forward, one-dimensional (focused on only one idea at a time), and unambiguous.
30. Arrange questions in a funnel approach—broad to specific—to ease participants into the topic and allow them to generate new topics early on.
31. Hire a professional facilitator: it takes a great deal of skill to guide the discussion, probe for depth and detail, manage group dynamics, and maximize responses—all at the same time.
32. Contract with someone has good listening skills to do the facilitation—the rest will take care of itself.
33. Assign someone indigenous to the group to co-facilitate—welcome participants, serve food, fill out name cards, take notes, run the recorder, etc.
34. Seat participants close to and facing each other around a table to maximize chances for natural interaction.
35. Seat excessive talkers next to the facilitator (if you can identify them) —reduced eye contact will reduce their opportunities to monopolize the group.
36. Assign each participant a unique number by which they will be anonymously denoted in the transcript and for analysis.
37. Have participants sign consent forms before the group begins to be sure they understand what they have agreed to do.
38. Collect demographic information on all participants so you will be able to characterize the composition of each group as well as the collective group.
39. Establish ground rules before starting the group—no cell phones, respect for others’ comments, no right or wrong answers, a promise of mutual confidentiality.
40. Strive to generate as many different opinions and comments during the focus group from as many different people as possible in the time allotted.
41. Don’t run groups longer than 90 minutes; participant stamina begins to deteriorate at that point.
42. Label all recordings and transcripts immediately after creating them.
43. Stick to your well-thought-out study design unless what you learn in one of the early groups indicates it makes sense not to.
44. Don’t ever use a focus group as a debate, group therapy session, or problem solving exercise–it is an information generating exercise.
45. Don’t forget to budget for transcription; each 90-minute focus group will take seven to eight hours for a professional to transcribe.
46. Read and re-read transcripts until you are intimately familiar with the contents and can begin to assign codes to major categories and sub-categories.
47. Sort and re-sort data in a constant continuous refinement process until you find a reasonable fit between data and categories.
48. Resist the urge to count responses; focus groups are designed to provide rich narrative, not numbers.
49. Draw heavily on quotes from participants to convey key findings—there’s nothing more powerful than a direct quote for transmitting a compelling finding.
50. Triangulate findings with other related data—focus group findings are most reliable when combined with findings collected by other methods.
Want more? Download my free guide to Conducting a Focus Group. Or, if you’re looking for a professional to conduct the groups, I’d love to work with you. Call me at 503-287-0693 for a free initial consultation.