Engaging Focus Group Participants in High Value Discussions (Part 1)
Have you ever had trouble getting people to engage in a focus group discussion? I mean REALLY engage? Do you dream about having a focus group in which participants are animated and interactive, have plenty to say about the topic, AND offer the depth you’re looking for?
According to David Morgan, focus group expert and author of five books on the topic (as well as The Focus Group Kit, Volumes 1-6), participants will generate both the data you’re after and deep insights when they can freely share their experiences and thoughts, as well as compare what they have said to what others have said—something Morgan refers to as “sharing and comparing.”
The good news is that there are several steps you can take to promote these types of interactions.
Prior to conducting the group, you can set criteria for participant selection. You can also carefully craft the questions you intend to ask and adjust the structure of the group to accommodate the topic and participant traits. It also helps to keep the number of participants to a reasonable number.
During the focus group, you can promote sharing and comparing by what you say in the introductory remarks. You can also offer positive feedback and provide opportunities for reflection. Probably most importantly, you can listen with interest and curiosity.
Below I expand on the four strategies you can implement prior to the focus group to maximize quality participant interaction.
- Participant selection. Homogeneity is key. The more similar participants are to each other, the less they will have to explain about themselves and the more comfortable they’ll be in sharing their comments with each other. Morgan cautions, however, about not limiting homogeneity to demographics and background characteristics. “It is important that this kind of homogeneity is based on similarity with regard to the topic,” he says. So, unless you suspect that age, gender, or ethnic differences will make individuals unable to or uncomfortable sharing and comparing their experiences with each other, look to the topic for guidance. Similarities with regard to the topic can override many demographic differences. Overall, the trick is to ensure enough homogeneity to help people feel comfortable while at the same time allowing for the type of diversity that creates a rich discussion.
- Focus group questions. Since the first question sets the discussion in motion, it’s important to make it a good one. Morgan suggests three basic principles for the starter question: 1) easy for each participant to answer; 2) something that makes participants want to hear what others have to say; and 3) something that creates the opportunity to express a diverse range of views. Subsequent questions, of course, need to keep the ball rolling. I’ve found the best way to do that is to organize questions in a conversational sequence in which one question logically follows the rest. For example, don’t ask people for their suggestions on how to fix a problem before you’ve asked them how the issue affects them or before they define the problem.
- Group size. Group size affects group interaction. The more challenged/challenging the group, the smaller the group should be—even as small as three to five individuals. If participants have low literacy skills, lack proficiency in group-interaction, or find it difficult to articulate their thoughts, then a smaller group works best. On the other hand, no matter how high functioning the group, the number of participants should never exceed seven or eight individuals.
- Focus group structure. It’s important to decide up front how much structure is appropriate for your groups. It all depends on the topic, the participants, and how much ground you want to cover. If you’re in the early stages of exploring a topic (don’t have many specific questions), and participants are high functioning (comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions with each other), then less structure is needed. If, however, most of the participants have little experience participating in group discussions, you anticipate some especially loquacious participants, and/or you have a very full or detailed question guide, then you’ll want to build in more structure. Another thing to pay attention to is the fact that group dynamics can be challenging for those who are not accustomed to having a voice in matters that are important to them or who have little practice speaking up and sharing information. In such situations you will want to select a facilitator who can control the discussion with tactics like probing and paraphrasing, interrupting those who monopolize the conversation, calling on participants who have not spoken, and moving participants through the question guide at an even pace to make sure each question gets addressed.
Next week I’ll share four strategies you can use during focus groups to encourage high value discussions that generate high quality data.
In the mean time, let me know if I can help in any way. I offer Qualitative Methods Coaching (QMC) at the following rates (nonprofit, student and repeat client discounts available):
- 1 – 3 hours: $150/hr.
- 4 – 19 hours: $125/hr.
- 20+ hours: $100/hr.
To see if QMC is right for you, email me at email@example.com with a short description of your project and a convenient time for a free 15-minute upfront consultation.
Thank you for reading my blog. Just enter your email address below to become a subscriber. It’s free and you’ll receive a notice every time I post.