What are Focus Group Interviews and Why Should I Conduct Them?


Posted January 15, 2018

In this blog we will talk a little bit about focus group interviews. Now, focus groups interviews are the real unsung heroes of qualitative research, and I hope that by the end of this blog you will be able to appreciate how focus group interviews can positively affect your qualitative research study. But first, we will answer the question: What are focus group interviews?

Focus group interviews are interviews you conduct with a group of participants to collect a variety of information. These interviews can be as small as four participants and sometimes as large as ten, but I would recommend keeping a focus group interview between four and eight participants. Oftentimes with larger focus group interviews, some participants dominate the discussions while others fade into the background. As you can imagine, this is not what you want to have happen in an interview setting, but this can provide some crucial information to analyze and interpret later.

Just like with any other type of interview, focus group interviews utilize an interview protocol. The difference for the focus group interview protocol is that, while qualitative researchers will often create a list of questions and continue moving down the line, focus group interviews utilize what are known as prompts. A prompt can be a statement or question that you throw out to your focus group participants, and then just take a step back. Instead of asking a whole bunch of questions, you let natural conversations emerge based on the prompt and only redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand. You can try to include those wallflowers who may be shying away from saying anything by asking their thoughts and opinions, but ultimately, it is out of your hands how the conversation happens. While it may not seem as if this would be something a qualitative researcher should be interested in, this style of interview best reflects real world interactions.

This leads into why you should consider focus group interviews. When we go out in the world and interact with people, such as coworkers, strangers, friends, and family, we are often influenced by our interactions. Think of how different you are around people compared to when you are alone, or how differently you write when something is for your own personal use compared to when it is going to be submitted. Sometimes we present ourselves in a different light because it may be more socially desirable to do so, or it may cause others to like us more. I’m not trying to create some psychological or existential conversation about ‘being true no matter what.’ This is just one thing that researchers have noticed in comparing individual and group interviews.

This is why focus group interviews are so under-appreciated. We can actively record how people reconcile talking about their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and opinions within a group of other people who are talking about their own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and opinions, all while still trying to be liked by those people around them. There is often a conflict that participants try to deal with, which really makes me appreciate this interview type. There are few data collection techniques that recreate real world interactions. Even with participant observations, participants know they are being observed, which makes it hard to get natural behaviors to analyze and interpret. But with the focus group interview, a participant’s focus is stretched thin between fitting in and sharing one’s thoughts about the prompt that makes him or her not focus on being observed. As a result, you can get authentic and natural responses from all of your participants, which means you get some really awesome observational data to analyze and interpret beyond just the interview transcript.

Focus group interviews give qualitative researchers a TON of data to analyze; they not only generate narrative data, but there is a lot of observational data you can gather as well. You can record down who is actively engaging in the conversation, who is shying away from participating, facial expressions, who is getting flustered, when participants begin to make concessions in their opinions, when participants begin asking questions regarding the prompt, body language, the use of language and the physical response people have to language, and other incredibly valuable information.

So now that I have opened your eyes to how amazing focus group interviews are, the question should not be ‘Why Should I Conduct Them?’ Rather, it should be ‘Why Haven’t I Conducted Them Yet?’


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