This post is about the learning experiences I gained from using focus groups as a research method for my Master of Design research project.
What is a focus group?
A focus group, as the name suggests, is an event involving a group of people brought together to focus on a topic. It is form of qualitative research, which means it is about thoughts, feelings and behaviours rather than quantifiable facts and figures.
This form of research is ideal if you want to to delve into a problem and get human insights. You can explore phenomena and situations, unearth sub-issues or identify patterns of thought or behaviour. Focus groups are often used for market research related to advertising and product development. Equally, they can be valuable for academic research into human-centred design, social or health issues.
Format of focus groups
Focus groups are usually face-to-face sessions with around 5-10 participants and a facilitator. You can also conduct them online as a video/audio meeting (using tools such as Zoom). I ended up doing both types for my project. Whichever format you use, it is essential to record and transcribe the sessions so you can analyse results. Identifying common themes (thematic analysis) lets you generate insights to inform your research.
Sessions can be structured, following a set list of questions and activities. However, focus groups are often semi-structured, where the researcher starts with a set format, but adapts the script or flow of the session according to participant responses. A third alternative is an unstructured approach, with no set script or format. This can open up conversation in an exploratory way when little is known about a problem.
A structured approach is more predictable and makes comparison between two focus groups easier. However, a semi-structured approach allows participants to discuss unforeseen issues on the spot. Such a conversation can unearth potentially valuable insights without straying too far off-track. For my focus groups, I followed a semi-structured approach. I aimed to keep the format of the two sessions as similar as possible, while allowing time for slight diversions to the script where appropriate.
Why hold a focus group?
Getting people together for a focus group lets participants interact, connect and share experiences. It is a good way to find out what people think about a topic. More importantly, you can explore why they think the way they do. Open-ended questions, group activities and stimulus materials can be used to delve into a topic in some detail. You can discover people’s perspectives, misconceptions, behaviours and ways of thinking.
Usually, focus group members have something in common, such as being at a similar life stage, using a certain product, or having an interest in a sport or hobby. In academic terms, this is called a homogenous group. However, sometimes it is valuable to get a group together who represent people with different perspectives – a heterogeneous group. A mixed group highlights differences, which can lead to useful insights. People compare their experiences with others, building on ideas or debating points of difference. This ‘share and compare’ approach enables a diversity of views and experiences in one focus group. However, you need to manage this carefully to avoid clashes and imbalances.
Aims of my focus group research
My research project looks at how personalised visualisation of cycling safety information could impact attitudes. To understand this, I wanted to get input from two main stakeholder groups – cyclists and drivers. Many people fall into both categories. From an academic research perspective, the ideal approach would be to run three separate focus groups – one with drivers, one with cyclists, and one mixed. With limited time and resources, I planned to hold just two focus groups. One would be a heterogeneous group (cyclists and drivers) and one homogenous group (non-cycling drivers only).
As a practice-based research project, all my research needs to inform the design process. I will be creating some sort of designed intervention to help address a stated problem. Therefore the aims of my focus group research were to:
- refine the design problem
- determine needs and concerns of different stakeholders
- review initial prototypes of possible approaches to the design.
Ideally, focus group insights would help me select what type of visualisation and personalisation to implement in my design solution. I also wanted to test communication techniques and initial design ideas, and identify priorities for content.
The ethics of focus groups
Any research that involves people, such as focus groups or interviews, should be ethically conducted. Academic research, such as for my research project, must undergo ethical review by the University (see Griffith University ethics information). This is to ensure research is carried out in an ethical way that respects the privacy and rights of participants.
I found that preparing for the ethical review process was a catalyst for really thinking about what I wanted to achieve through the research. It made me think seriously about who to involve, how to recruit people and what materials would be needed for the focus groups. To prepare for the ethics review I created the following:
- summary of the project and research aims, in layman’s terms
- detailed answers to the University’s ethics questionnaire
- draft script/questions for the focus group
- draft email to recruit participants
- information for participants, with details of privacy, ethics, process, etc
- consent forms for participants.
Fortunately the ethics approval process was efficient, with speedy and helpful responses from the reviewers, and the support of my research supervisor (Prof Ming Cheung) to push things through. I found out later that an additional review process is required if a researcher wants to recruit participants from the University itself (students or staff). (See application to conduct a survey at Griffith University). I managed to get approval for that before the second of my focus groups.
Once ethics approval was granted, I set a date/time for the focus groups and booked a venue. It was difficult deciding whether to choose a weekday or weekend, daytime or evening, city/Uni or local venue. There were pros and cons of each option. I knew getting people to give up their time and physically come in to a session would not be easy. I settled on a weekday at the Uni in Southbank, Brisbane (one morning and one afternoon session), and booked a room and video equipment for that date.
Before contacting potential volunteers, I prepared a research web page to help recruit participants. This included a brief introduction to the project, the participant info sheet, a page about why people might want to volunteer, and an online sign-up form. I took this approach because I thought it would be far easier to give people a web link than to respond to lots of email or phone enquiries. My contact details were on the web page if people did want to get in touch direct. The web link made it easy to share on emails and social media.
In an attempt to recruit volunteers, I used a number of channels. First, I posted a link in a Facebook cycling group I am a member of. My general friends and contacts also saw the post. Then I posted a similar link on LinkedIn, aiming the message more at non-cyclists. I also phoned Bicycle Queensland, the State cycling organisation of which I am a member, and sent a follow-up email asking if they could spread the word to cyclists and their friends/families. Unfortunately that avenue yielded no reply. Additionally, I asked fellow students at University (known contacts only, according to ethics rules) and a few local contacts. Finally, I provided details to go on the University’s monthly ‘call for volunteers’ email. This went out too late for the first focus group but in time for the second.
Logistics for the focus groups
My original plan was to hold two face-to-face focus groups, each with about six participants. The first one was to be non-cyclist drivers only, and the second one a mix of drivers and cyclists. However, when the date of the focus groups was just a few days away, I had only five confirmed participants.
I decided to adjust my plans, and do one face-to-face focus group, with an online session the following week. For the online focus group, I planned an evening session so a wider variety of people could attend. Both groups would be mixed (heterogeneous) groups of cyclists and drivers/non-cyclists. I quickly amended the online sign-up form to reflect the new dates, and was able to line up a few participants for the second session.
A couple of days before the face-to-face focus group, I sent participants a reminder email. This included a map of how to find the room (see image above). I also prepared the materials I’d need for the session – handouts, flip chart with sketches, consent forms, online activities.
Getting written permission from participants
For the online focus group, I sent out consent forms in advance. Using Adobe Sign, I could automate the process of gathering signatures from participants. This is available to Adobe CC subscribers, as part of Acrobat Pro DC (see how to send documents for signature). It certainly made the process easier for the participants! Because everything was online, they did not have to print out and scan/email their form. This made it easy to track and file the forms. Whenever somebody signed, I received an email with their signed PDF form attached.
Setting up the focus group session
On the day of the face-to-face session, I brought in lots of snacks and drinks, paper cups and plates, copies of consent forms, and various materials for activities. I rearranged the room furniture in a way that would be more conducive to chatting and group activities.
I fetched the video camera and microphone from the University AV service and set it up. Having never used the equipment before, I allowed a bit of extra time for this. Unfortunately the microphone was faulty, so I had to rush off and ask the AV team to check it while the first couple of participants arrived and settled in.
How the focus groups went
Unfortunately, only two people turned up for the face-to-face focus group! One person completely forgot to come, and the other two were unable to attend for last minute work and family reasons. Nevertheless, I decided to proceed as planned. Two of those who couldn’t attend the first focus group were subsequently able to attend the online focus group a week later. For that online session, nine people signed up, and six attended.
Having only two people for the face-to-face focus group limited the opportunity to share experiences and viewpoints, but it enabled a more in-depth conversation. Due to the lower numbers, I had to adjust some of the planned activities on the fly. For example, I’d planned a pair-based activity that involved sorting and prioritising topics, using printed slips of paper. These became individual activities instead.
A couple of activities involved online polls that display people’s votes instantly, using Mentimeter. These instant polls can be a great way to engage people with a topic, but had less impact with only two people. When I ran the activities the following week with seven people in the online focus group, the result was much more interesting, as shown in the ‘word cloud’ example below.
Another issue was that the two people at the first focus group were both cyclists, so it was not a mixed group. Luckily the second group was more mixed, and the total set of participants represented a good age/gender spread.
Online focus groups
I conducted my online focus group via a Zoom meeting, which enables multiple people to join in by clicking a link that opens an app on their computer or smartphone, with the option to dial in by phone too. Unlike services like Skype, people don’t need to create an account to join in. As facilitator, I created a free account in order to schedule a meeting. The session was limited to 40 minutes for meetings with 3+ people, but when the time limit approached a pop-up message appeared and I was magically granted more time – thank you Zoom! Otherwise I would have needed to create a separate meeting for the second half of the 1-hour session.
With Zoom, participants can choose whether or not to show their video image. The facilitator can share their screen, use the chat to send messages or links, and see who is participating via multiple video screens. I found the process worked quite well, although it took a while to get used to the interface.
One participant was unable to join in after seeing a message saying the facilitator (me) was already running a meeting. I am not sure exactly what happened there! It was disappointing for the participant, who had put aside time to join the session. A couple of others had similar issues but were able to sign out then click the link to rejoin. A good thing about Zoom is it automatically records the session, so you can download that straight after the meeting. I wrote a transcript based on the recording, which I then used to analyse themes and extract quotes.
Results of my focus groups
All in all, both focus groups went well, under the circumstances. The first yielded some very good insights and ideas from the two participants. The second built on this via a more animated discussion, so I was able to draw further insights. For the project outcome, see my visual analysis of research themes and read my research project summary.
Learning points about focus group research
- Be clear about what you want to achieve from a focus group. Defining your desired outcomes helps determine who to invite, when/where the session should be held, what format it is and how to structure the session.
- Preparing for the ethics review for your research is a good incentive to think about the outcomes you want, and a catalyst to get materials ready. If researching at Griffith Uni, be aware you also need to apply to survey staff or students. This is essential if you want your research to appear on the monthly email calling for research volunteers. I found this a good source of volunteers for the online focus group.
- Audiovisual equipment can fail – get it the day before, so you can test everything and familiarise yourself with the controls. Place the camera so everyone is in shot (I didn’t do this well) and use a separate microphone as a back-up. I found this invaluable when transcribing the recording, especially when people spoke quietly.
- For a face-to-face focus group, get someone to assist you if possible. Having someone else to organise food/drinks, contact people who haven’t turned up, hand out materials or sort out equipment issues can take the pressure off the facilitator.
- Zoom meeting works well for an online focus group. Practise using it beforehand, and advise participants to download the app before the session. The links to join didn’t always work as expected, but I learned to look out for ‘waiting room’ messages when participants tried to join in.
- Use activities and stimulus materials (such as images, objects, online polls or card-sorting exercises) to stimulate debate and connect participants. Don’t rely solely on questions and conversation. For example, in a role play exercise I donned a cycling hat to make it more realistic.
- Mentimeter is a great way to poll participants, especially for online focus groups. Screen-sharing the instant results provokes discussion, and you can save the data graphics for use in your research. Ask people to use their phone for polls (rather than computer) — they go to menti.com and enter a code.
- You have to think on your feet when facilitating a focus group, especially when not enough people turn up! Make sure activities and questions are flexible enough to adjust if needed. Listen and respond, changing order of questions if it seems more appropriate on the day. Try to get everyone talking; pay attention to the quiet ones, not just the good talkers.
- Don’t talk too much. Let the participants do the talking. It’s their perspectives you want to hear, so try to facilitate their discussion, and resist sharing your own opinion. I found it tempting to fill in the gaps when there was a lull in conversation. Sometimes you just need to wait it out, or reframe the question.
- Recruit more people than you need, if you can. Inevitably some won’t turn up. Send a text message or email the day before to remind them to attend. If possible, provide an incentive, such as a voucher or free food. I had food left over from the first focus group, but when students are around it’s not an issue – you’ll always find someone who wants it!
- Morgan, D. H., K. . (2018). Focus Groups. In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection. doi:10.4135/9781526416070
- Barbour, R. (2007). Qualitative Research kit: Doing focus groups. doi:10.4135/9781849208956