Recording Focus Groups

Focus groups generate a large amount of irreplaceable data. Not knowing at the time of collection which pieces will prove most valuable, it’s essential to capture them all. In this era of technology, there are several options. Knowing your resource limits, the requirements of your project, and the skill set of your co-facilitator will help you determine the best method for accurately reproducing the complete proceedings. I share five that I’ve used.

Live Captioning

My favorite way to generate an accurate transcript of focus group discussions doesn’t involve me at all. Instead, I contract with a live- captioner who joins me in the focus group in place of a co-facilitator. A captioner is a highly skilled court reporter who captures the spoken word in writing for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, usually students in a classroom setting. Captioning is directly transferrable to focus groups—I use this approach almost exclusively anymore. Because the captioner’s stenotype machine is connected to a laptop, the transcript is automatically (and quietly) generated right there in the room. The transcript is available immediately or within a couple of days if slight editing is required.

Digital Voice Recording

Sleek pocket-sized DVR’s (digital voice recorders) have largely replaced the cassette recorder these days. I own an Olympus, which holds up to 35 voice hours. Newer models like the Olympus WS-801 Voice Recorderfar exceed that and have come down in price considerably over the past five years. Sony and other electronics makers also sell DVR’s at affordable prices.

I highly recommend DVR’s for their excellent audio quality and powerful built-in microphone. You can purchase miniature plug-in microphones which I use on the rare occasion when the table is so large that it spreads focus group participants too far apart for good voice recognition. In addition to the high quality sound, recordings can be downloaded directly to your computer via the built-in USB and transmitted by email.


I’ve sometimes hired co-facilitators who were good note-takers when it was not essential that I capture every word. A co-facilitator with excellent typing skills can take fairly accurate notes in real time on a laptop.

I’d also like to mention a new device, which I love called Livescribe 4 GB Echo Smartpen(by Echo). LiveScribe is a special pen that records what’s being said as you write it on patterned paper. Tiny dots on the special paper tell the pen its location on the page through the pen’s tiny camera. After taking notes, you can tap the pen on a written note and the pen’s speaker will play back whatever was recorded when the note was made. LiveScribe was designed for students taking lecture notes so the microphone is sufficiently powerful for in-person and telephone interviews. LiveScribe holds 800 hours of audio.


If you are conducting focus groups by telephone through a commercial conferencing service you will be able to purchase a CD recording of the entire phone conversation. However, you must arrange to have the conversation recorded prior to the group, usually by keying in a designated code. Most conferencing services also offer transcription of the audio recording, but at a substantial cost.

Cassette Recording

When I first started conducting focus groups 14 years ago, I packed a boom box and 24-foot extension cord for every focus group session. I also carried a small battery operated tape recorder and plenty of extra batteries and cassette tapes. It may seem like overkill but using both devices to record the same session meant I would always have one usable transcript, even if the other failed. I would run both devices simultaneously just in case one or the other failed.

Luckily, that never happened. But, there were occasions when what I could not hear on one recording was audible on the other. Between the two, I could usually generate a complete transcript.

I seldom use my cassette recorders anymore but, like an old reliable uncle, they’re there when and if newer technologies fail.

Your Experiences?

How about you? What are your favorite techniques for capturing focus group data?

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  1. Maggie Miller
    Maggie MillerJanuary 9,11

    Thanks Susan, this is great! Here are some questions and my own experience:

    Do you have an Apple or a PC? Does your Olympus “play” with your Mac? And does it also play with PCs? I’m currently in the market for a recorder that will a) work with my Mac b) work with other people’s PCs, and c) be compatible with transcription software (whatever that looks like…I’m still figuring that out).

    At the moment I’ve downloaded an App(iTalk by Griffin) to my iPhone that got great reviews, bought a little mic (Mini Microphone for iPhone 3G/iPod/touch/classic
    by Cables To Buy) for my iPhone3GS that got great reviews, and found some free transcription software that seems to work well (Express Scribe, So far everything seems to work; I’ll keep you posted!

  2. Susan Eliot
    Susan EliotJanuary 12,11

    Wow, Maggie you’re quite the technology wizard! Thanks for sharing the specific information about your iPhone enhancements. Is there anything the iPhone can’t do (with the right augmentation)?!

    I use an Apple but my Olympus also worked with my former PC.I have not tried to add any transcription software since I usually contract out transcription.

    Do post again when you have more to tell us about your experience using your iPhone set-up.

  3. Iain McCowan
    Iain McCowanApril 21,11

    You may be interested in learning about a new product by Dev-Audio: Microcone Recorder. It represents a new class of portable recording system and has been designed with the reporting needs of qualitative researchers in mind.

    It works on Mac and provides a high-quality group microphone that records each person to a separate audio track (up to 6 tracks), direct to your hard disk over USB. Compared to a normal dictaphone, this makes it easier to transcribe overlapped speech.

    The software application allows you to take time-tagged notes, automatically indexes each speaking turn, and links to a fully automatic transcription service to get an approximate transcript with fast turnaround. Manual transcriptions can be done in the interface or imported from text files.

    The software then makes it easy to search through a database of recordings and navigate to a particular point using a meeting timeline interface. The audio files and annotations can easily be exported.

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