Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Leading a Focus Group Discussion

Focus groups are used in the social sciences, but are often overlooked as as a data collection method. Whether we are seeking market information, brand impressions, process clarification, or identifying roadblocks, a focus group is a brilliant way to gather the impressions of a small group in a short space of time.

A group facilitator can prepare a list of questions and prompts designed to tap into a particular set of objectives, then lead the group through the process of achieving those objectives. The focus group participants share ideas amongst the participant group, and - providing the focus group script questions have been well put together - the resulting data set can be far richer than from individual interviewees.

While we need a skilled facilitator, for most purposes, we can learn 'on the job' if we have done our planning before we begin. So when we are setting up focus groups, these are the things we need to carefully consider:
  1. Objectives. We need to clearly know before we start writing our script what it is we want to achieve overall. 
  2. Script. We need to clearly determine what we are hoping to get answers to, and build a sound data collection script around those outcomes to ensure that our focus group is effective. Asking open-ended questions which begin “why”, “how”, or “what” gets discussion started, and similarly worded prompts keeps it moving. For a normal focus group we will probably need about 10 or so good quality main questions, supported by prompts, follow-up questions and exit questions. We need to write questions which are short and clear.  Only ask one question at a time. As Humans of Data (11 September 2017) note, "Poorly-worded, biased, or awkward questions can derail a [focus group] and spoil the [data] quality". Prepare prompt questions such as "Tell us more about that"; "Why is that important?"; and "How do you see that working?" Prompts include follow-up questions so we can dig more deeply into participants opinions. We can also prepare exit questions, such as "Have we covered everything?" or "Is there anything else anyone would like to add?"
  3. Prioritise. We need to prioritise our questions so we can be sure that we get all the answers we MUST have, and leave the 'nice to have' to ask later, providing we have additional time. 
  4. Length. A good length of time for a focus group to run is between 45 minutes and one hour.
  5. Time. Find a time when everyone can attend, and not be distracted. Control the time so that people are not having to stay longer than the agreed length of the session. 
  6. Venue. Our focus needs to be held somewhere where we will not be unnecessarily interrupted.
  7. Size. Focus groups work best where there are under 10 participants, including the facilitator.  
  8. Roles. One person should facilitate. The facilitator needs to control the tone, the direction and monitor progress. If we have the luxury, having an extra person to take notes during the session is very useful. And if we are very lucky, having a third person to prompt (or relate short examples) makes it easier for the leader. 
  9. Recording. Videoing the session is one of the best ways to ensure that no data is lost in the process. We need to get the agreement of our participants to record. Double check that the recording is both image and sound. 
  10. Rules. Set your session ground rules about respectful listening, contributions, and not talking over other participants; but allowing that discussion could - and should - be lively.
  11. Thank you. Say thank you at the end!
If you haven't tried a focus group, do so. They are very, very useful.


Sam

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