Facilitated sessions often consist of six to 12 individuals who share a common interest in the process to be improved.

Focus groups uncover different perspectives and issues, and can provide richer and more profound information than personal interviews or surveys.

Why use a focus group?

To help a group make a decision as a team in an efficient and positive manner.

What is a focus group?

A focus group consists of six to 12 individuals who share a common interest in the process we are improving. They are interviewed by a moderator to learn more about their needs.

Well-run focus groups uncover real feelings and issues, and provide richer and more profound information than personal interviews or surveys because the dynamics of a group lead to more developed answers than any individual customer might supply on their own. Focus groups also provide the additional non-verbal information (excitement, doubt, stress) that surveys cannot.

How do we do it?

State the objectives

The questions to be asked are dependent on the purpose and how results will be used. Defining the problem determines much of the focus group agenda and interview process. A clear statement of the kind of information that is desired and from whom it should be obtained is the basis for designing a successful focus group.

Identify the sample

The sample is a list of people drawn from the group from which information is needed. It may be the entire group, a random sample of the entire group or it may be a readily available list of people – a convenience sample.

Identify a facilitator

The facilitator's job is to interview the focus group according to a given agenda and to ask appropriate follow-up questions. The facilitator must also strive to maintain an environment in which participants feel comfortable about openly expressing their thoughts. A skilled facilitator constantly monitors group dynamics that may be affecting responses.

Create and pre-test the interview questions

There is no 'right' set of questions; just the set which is right for the purpose at hand. In general, exploratory focus groups call for more open-ended questions (What do you like best about...? Why?), while confirmatory focus groups call for more closed-ended questions (Do you like A or B better? Why?).

However, all focus groups will contain some combination of exploratory and confirmatory questions, beginning with the more general (open-ended) and transitioning to those that are more specific (closed-ended).

Most interviews consist of fewer than 12 initial questions, with four or five questions being the average number of questions in focus groups. The number of questions depends on how time-consuming each topic is estimated to be and the facilitator's skill. Adequate time should be left for meaningful follow-up questioning, which may take up as much time or more as the original questions.

Try not to attract attention to how you expect participants to discuss the topic when you phrase the question. Take care to ensure questions aren't worded in a way that the group is led to an obvious, socially acceptable response. The goal is to hear how participants naturally judge your process, service or product.

For open-ended questions, ask how they feel or what they think about the topic of interest and let the moderator probe along whatever measures the participants supply. For closed-ended questions, avoid yes or no questions because they stifle discussion.

If necessary, provide alternative choices, but be sure the moderator follows up by asking why participants made a particular choice. Use simple wording everyone can understand. Pre-test the questions on several prospective focus group members and revise if necessary, so you can be assured participants will understand.

Recruit group members

Contact members of the sample and inform them of the general purpose and topics of discussion, the time and location of the meeting and the method you'll use to record their responses. Eight to 12 participants is an ideal number. Try to recruit at least 10, since a few may cancel at the last minute. A few days before the focus group is to meet, send the participants a note or call them to reconfirm their participation. If you think participants will need time to prepare answers, send them copies of the interview questions.

Conduct the focus group(s)

It is common practice to convene more than one focus group for a given topic. With three focus group sessions (different participants) focusing on the same questions, patterns will typically emerge. Record all responses, including the follow-up questions. Whenever possible, non-verbal participation should be recorded as well.

The moderator should not be responsible for committing everything said to paper, and those who are doing the recording should remain as unobtrusive as possible. Seating arrangements affect the general environment of the focus group. Amply spaced seating at a round table helps participants feel they are part of a friendly, problem-solving mission, in which their individual experiences and opinions are valued.

Analyse the results

Sometimes those analysing the findings are asked only to summarise what the groups said and sometimes they are asked to also make recommendations for action. In either case, the expectation needs to be made clear.

Analysis is always a process of coding and sorting results into categories and looking for patterns and trends. Many times the results will not seem like an answer to the original question until the entire focus group process is presented on paper, from the original problem statement to interpretation of the results. In preparing the findings report, the researcher seeks primarily to identify evidence that repeats or that raises fundamental questions that beg further inquiry.

Capture lessons learned and share results

Document what you discovered, clearly stating on paper what you learned about the program, product or service from the point of view of those you serve. Did the focus group confirm your assumptions? Did it provide you with information about new problems?

Evaluate your focus group interview process. What went well or poorly? What would you change the next time around?

Finally, share your document with focus group participants and other members of your organisation. It is customary and courteous to provide feedback to the individuals who served on the focus groups, both acknowledging their participation and indicating results and how the data will be used.