The Focus Group

The focus group is one of the core methodologies used in conducting qualitative research. Focus groups first came into use in the 1920s and 30s as a way to understand consumer attitudes and behavior, and were widely used in sociology, anthropology and psychology.  Of course, today we see focus groups used in a variety of settings, with wide acceptance as a way of both understanding behavior and making plans.  Focus groups can be used to understand purchasing decisions or social attitudes, to help companies make choices about projects such as package design and product preferences,  or to brainstorm ideas for future projects.

Traditionally, focus groups are run by one individual, usually referred to as a moderator or facilitator, and involve a discussion among a group of six to ten participants or respondents.    Focus groups typically are 90 minutes to two hours in length.

Conducting Focus Groups

Focus groups are often conducted in specially-designed facilities, known as focus group suites, though it is not uncommon to conduct them in other settings, as well.  A focus group suite will generally provide a comfortable sitting area for the moderator and the group, a means for interested parties to unobtrusively observe the group from behind a one-way mirror, and will have the technology needed to record the focus group session for later review.

The goal of every focus group moderator is to create rapport between both him or herself and among the participants.  In order for focus group research to be effective, participants must feel comfortable enough to be candid about their feelings and open with their responses.  Often, the more homogeneity there is between the participants, the easier this is to achieve.  A good moderator will work to make the focus group environment feel as unthreatening as possible, and to assure each participant that his or her opinion is respected and valued.

Features of the Focus Group

Two key features of the focus group come from the name:  The research is focused, and the format is a group.

A focus group has defined scope and objectives.  It is not a free-flowing discussion, per se; in fact, a moderator may need to regularly put the focus group conversation back “on track.”    Nevertheless, while the scope – the focus – is clear at the outset, the qualitative researcher must be ready for all forms of responses, and should welcome, even explore, ideas that diverge from answers that may have been expected.

The other key feature of a focus group that separates it from other forms of qualitative research is the group dynamic.  While a moderator will have a set of topics and questions to cover, the goal of a focus group is to foster communication between the participants, presumably generating responses that are richer and perhaps even different than those that might have come from speaking with the participants individually.  The focus group moderator will direct the conversation, and will work to ensure that there is a balance of responses among the participants.  However, often the best data that comes from focus groups is generated when the participants direct their conversation to each other.  This level of rapport often  reveals the best insights.

Focus groups use methods that bring participants into creative, or right brain, patterns of thinking.  Free association, projectives, and creative exercises are some of the techniques used by moderators to both warm up participants and to help them generate rich responses.

The analysis of focus groups takes place after the responses have been collected.  While a focus group is in progress, the moderator is charged with engaging the participants, keeping the discussion in motion, and watching for opportunities to dig deeper.

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