10 Tips for Organizing Focus Groups

The Business Analyst Body of Knowledge defines a focus group as:

A means of eliciting ideas and attitudes about a specific product, service or opportunity within an interactive group environment.

Focus group sessions are organized with the aim of gathering qualitative information from participants. They are a great way of achieving a deep understanding of the thoughts, attitudes and perceptions of participants on a range of topics. Focus groups can also help with identifying problems and issues related to a certain idea. As a result, adequate thought and planning should go into its preparation. 

Focus groups offer a means of gathering information that is subjective by seeking answers to open-ended questions. Instead of distributing basic questionnaires that deliver data requiring further analysis, focus groups allow organizers to share their perspectives in a non-threatening, collaborative and interactive environment. Focus groups also provide a great platform for eliciting requirements and understanding stakeholders' perspectives on different issues.

Since group sessions are typically prone to debate, it is important that discussions are geared towards pre-planned topics and that participants are prevented from straying too much from the agenda. The danger with focus groups, as with any collaborative venture, is that they can quickly become avenues for over-the-top criticism, which can be counterproductive.

The following sections provide useful guidelines for managing your focus group sessions to achieve positive results.

1. Employ the principles of brainstorming

Focus groups, though similar to brainstorming sessions, are different in many ways. Focus groups are more structured than brainstorming sessions and the ideas from a brainstorming session often seem exaggerated when compared to what you get from a focus group. 

As encouraged with brainstorming, each group member should be given a chance to speak up since this helps in casting a broad net across all the participants to ensure they are all involved. This is particularly essential when trying to arrive at a consensus. For more ideas on the principles of brainstorming that can be applied to focus groups, read Organizing Brainstorming Sessions: Before, During & After.

Instead of adopting a needle-in-a-haystack approach, the issues to be discussed should be prioritized based on their level of importance. The group leader is responsible for providing direction to the discussion and ensuring that the brainstorming session does not turn into a mess.

2. Ensure the objectives of the group are clear

It is important to ensure that all focus group participants know why they have been invited. It would be a waste of time to gather an intelligent bunch of people together without steering them in the right direction. For example, a focus group that has been organized to debate the rights and wrongs of drone strikes is less likely to stray into a discussion on economic policies if the objectives are clear and a skilled moderator is present.

3. Ask the right questions the right way

It is important that all questions are presented in a way that triggers discussion and concisely enough to steer participants in the right direction. For example, asking a question like, "How do you feel about the new bus route?" might not evoke a thoughtful response when compared with asking a question like, "How has the bus route affected your daily routine positively and negatively?". The framing of the latter question is more likely to evolve a helpful response. 

Participants also need to feel included in the discussion. Phrase questions in a way that ensures everyone participates. Make everyone feel they have been invited for a reason.

4. Select participants carefully

Too many times, focus groups are formed by selecting participants randomly, without giving a thought to why they should be selected. Ultimately, you should select participants who are: 1) intelligent enough to contribute to the discussion and 2) affected by the topic enough to care.

Selecting participants who are well versed on a topic but do not care is just as bad as selecting participants who know nothing about the topic. BABOK V2 recommends that a focus group should have between 6-12 participants. Where there are more participants, it might be necessary to split the group into 2.

A focus group can be either homogenous or heterogeneous. A homogenous focus group involves participants with similar interests, while a heterogeneous focus group would have participants with different backgrounds and varying perspectives to issues. Choose the set-up that best suits the situation.

5. Interview the shysters

In some cases, you may get a better outcome if you interview some of the group members away from others. This may not be necessary all the time, but it can help in getting more in-depth responses from shy and nervous members. Not everyone in a group wants to air their personal views in front of others. Talking to a few people privately just might pay off.

At best, you get a great response and at worst, you waste a few minutes of your time.

6. Employ an experienced moderator

An experienced moderator can be the difference between a focus group that succeeds and one that falls flat on its face. A good moderator has the ability to ask the tough questions and build rapport with the group. He or she will know when the discussion is veering into unnecessary areas and can steer it back effortlessly. It is always a good idea to find a third-party to run focus groups, especially when there are conflicts of interest. 

7. Establish the ground rules

Aside from getting the discussion going, a moderator is also responsible for establishing the ground rules of the focus group. Participants should understand which topic is off-limits, and what kinds of behavior are unacceptable. While a focus group is an avenue for candid discussion, it is not an opportunity to harass, intimidate or belittle others.

8. Document the facts

It is up to the moderator or facilitator to write a concluding analysis on the outcome of the focus group session. The analysis should involve reflecting on the major ideological themes of the group discussion as well as the lessons learnt. Since focus groups are a form of qualitative research, findings are usually reported as a combination of themes, quotes and perspectives and not numerical data. The lessons learnt by one group, if documented, can be implemented at a later time for better results in the next session.

9. Observe

Though most focus group sessions are recorded via audio or video, there are still benefits to be gained from including an observer. This will ensure that the moderator can lead the discussion and engage with the group, while the observer can hang back to assess the situation.

10. Conduct a Survey

Despite the deep discussions that focus groups trigger, a survey can also be used as a complementary means of getting the key questions answered. If you have a survey that needs filling, save it for the end. The end of the focus group session is a good time to present it since everyone's minds is still fresh from the just-concluded discussion and they will be able to provide thoughtful responses.

Facilitating a group session can be difficult especially when there are a lot of strong personalities in the group. These ten tips however, can be applied to achieve positive results.

There are many variations and types of moderation that can be applied to a focus group session. They are elaborated as follows:

1. Dual-Moderator Focus Group - There are 2 moderators available at this session with one controlling the session while another ensures that all the necessary topics are discussed. The two moderators between themselves can ensure a more productive session.

2. Dueling-Moderator Focus Group - With this arrangement, 2 moderators take opposing sides on a discussion to ensure that all the possible angles and ideas are explored.

3. Respondent Moderator Focus Group - With this arrangement, one of the participants/respondents acts as a temporary moderator who can influence the direction of the discussion. This role should be rotated in order to get the benefit of varied ideas.

4. Client-Participant Focus Group - One or more clients are involved in the discussion. The other participants may or may not be aware of this. Since the client is involved, he or she may lead the discussion in the desired direction.

5. Mini Group - With this arrangement, only 4 or 5 participants are involved, lesser than the size of a typical focus group which comprises 6 - 12 members.

6. Teleconference Focus Group - This is where participants interact online using web conferencing technology like NetMeeting to facilitate focus group sessions.