The best book I’ve read on the topic of focus groups is Focus Groups as Qualitative Research by David Morgan, part of the Qualitative Research Methods Series from Sage Publications. I’ve noted about a dozen research guidelines from the second edition of the book for future reference, including a great list of techniques for group self-management.
Rules of Thumb
Have a total of three to five groups per project
Have 6-10 participants per group
Rely on a relatively structured interview
Use homogeneous strangers as participants
The introduction of the topic is typically accompanied by a few ground rules: only one person speaking at at time, no side conversations among neighbors, everyone participating with no one dominating, and so on. A lengthy set of instructions can easily set the group off on a bad start because it creates an expectation that the moderator will be telling the group what to do. Instead the goal should be to make the group members feel responsible for generating and sustaining their own discussion. (see techniques for group self-management, below.)
The basis for the rule of thumb that projects should consist of three to five groups comes from a claim that more groups seldom provide meaningful new insights. In both the social sciences and marketing, this is frequently summarized as the ability to stop collecting data when the moderator can accurately anticipate what will be said next in a group. Seasoned qualitative researchers will recognize this as another way of expressing the goal of “saturation,” that is, the point at which additional data collection no longer generates new understanding. (sometimes called the point of diminishing astonishment).
Regardless of the circumstances, collecting only one group creates severe problems. The problem with having only one group is that it is impossible to tell when the discussion reflects either the unusual composition of that group or the dynamics of that unique set of participants. Even when there are data from just two groups, if what they say is highly similar then this provides much safer ground in concluding that group dynamics were not responsible for this content. Also, if the content of these two groups differ, then this is a fair warning that saturation has not been achieved.
Combining both practical and substantive considerations helps to clarify the basis for the rule of thumb size that specifies the range of six to ten participants. Below six, it may be difficult to sustain a discussion; above 10, it may be difficult to control one. [but one should not feel imprisoned by this boundary; if they’re rowdy then three may be the max, or on other topics 15 to 20 might be workable.]
Participants must be able to talk to each other, and wide gaps in social background or lifestyle can defeat this requirement. Note, however, that the goal is homogeneity in background and not homogeneity in attitudes. If all the participants share virtually identical perspectives on a topic, this can lead to a flat, unproductive discussion. (contrast IDEO’s “unfocus group”)
A good guide creates a natural progression across topics with some overlap between the topics. An artificial compartmentalization of the discussion defeats the purpose of using group interaction.
Pay as much attention to constructing a good guide as to managing the actual group dynamics. The reason is that an effective guide can produce a discussion that manages itself, whereas an ineffective guide can produce problems that no amount of moderating skill can fix.
It is important to avoid the fallacy of adhering to fixed questions. Instead the moderator needs to be free to probe more deeply where necessary, skip over areas that have already been covered, and follow completely new topics if they arise.
Having the moderator at the head of the table gives some control over individuals’ level of participation. This involves placing those who are likely to be less talkative directly across from the moderator, making it easier for the moderator to send nonverbal encouragement to them. Similarly, placing those who might dominate the discussion on either side of the moderator makes it easier to lean past them to encourage the participation of the rest of the group.
There is something about the process of writing things down that reinforces a person’s commitment to contributing these thoughts to the group, even in the face of apparent disapproval. Having written statements available also gives the moderator a legitimate basis for asking for input from those who have not said anything yet.
A more subtle advantage of getting each person to make an opening statement is that it helps deter “groupthink”, that is, the tendency for dissenters to suppress their disagreements in favor of maintaining consensus in the group.
Although videotaping is a tempting alternative to audiotaping, there is really very little to recommend it for social sciences research and there are several reasons to avoid it. A key difference between audiotaping and videotaping is the intrusiveness of the latter. Most people have few problems understanding the researcher’s need for audiotaping to create a record of the discussion and then quickly settle into a discussion that ignores the microphones and tape recorders.
Issues involving invasion of privacy are especially important whenever taping is the primary means of data collection. Actual audio and visual presentations of tapes are relatively rare in the social sciences, but they can be very tempting in the case of focus groups. No amount of accuracy in transcription will ever substitute for the excitement of actually listening to an emotional exchange among participants, and videotapes can be even more seductive. It is thus wise to decide up front who will hear or see the tapes. My advice would be to limit this access to the research staff; unless you know from the beginning that public presentation of the tapes will be an integral part of the research it is best to rule out this option altogether.
Most focus groups that involve an invasion of privacy are also a waste of the researcher’s time.
Techniques for Group Self-Management
1. Legitimate the member’s responsibility to manage the discussion: “If you tend to get off the track, someone will usually pull the group back to the topic — we’ll jump in if we have to, but usually one of you takes care of that for us.” Note that here and throughout, the underlying strategy is to create a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (another of Merton’s contributions). In other words, your instructions should model the behavior that you want the group to adopt.
2. Cue them on how to handle common problems: “If the group runs out of things to say, just remember that we’re interested in is [research topic] and we want to hear as many different things about this as possible. So what usually happens is that someone will think of something that hasn’t come up yet and then that will restart the discussion.”
3. Emphasize that you want was many different perspectives as possible. “If your experience is a little different from what others are saying, then that is exactly what we want to hear from you. Often someone says, ‘I guess my experience is different from everyone else’s …’ and that then they find out that the same things have happened to other people too, but no one else would have mentioned it if someone didn’t start the ball rolling.”
4. Get them to use questions to direct the flow of interaction: “If someone hasn’t really joined in, or you seem to be hearing from the same people all the time, try asking a question to someone who hasn’t spoken as much. We have everyone say a little bit about themselves in the first part of the discussion, so listen to what the others say at the start. Then, later on, you can use this information to ask someone a question that will draw them back into the discussion.”
5. Emphasize hearing about their experience. Not everyone is willing to state or defend their opinion, but most people are willing to tell their stories: “We want to hear as many stories as possible. Even if you think your experience is just like everyone else’s, don’t just say, ‘I agree.’ We want to hear your story, because there’s always something unique in each person’s own experiences.”
6. Stress that all experiences are equally important to you: “We need to hear as many different things from as many of you as time allows. There really aren’t right or wrong answers in this area, if there were, we’d go to experts and they’d tell us the answers. Instead, we’re hear to learn from your experiences.
Ending the Session
Just as the transition between individual opening statements and actual group discussion provides a clear beginning to the group, it is also a good idea to provide a clear indication of when the session is ending. In low moderator involvement groups the simple return of the moderator to the table provides this cue. In high moderator involvement groups, asking each person to give a final statement is a useful technique. A sense that the final statement will not be interrupted or challenged may allow a participant to make a contribution that he or she has been holding back from the open discussion.
The most obvious constraint on interview content is the fact that a typical discussion lasts one or two hours. Safe advice would be to set the length at 90 minutes but tell participants that the discussion will run two hours — this half-hour cushion avoids the disruption of the group dynamics from either late arrivers or early leavers.
Interpreting the data from focus groups requires distinguishing between what participants find interesting and what they find important. When participants discuss a topic at length this is a good indication they they find it interesting, but that is not the same as saying that they think it is important. Alternatively a brief discussion of a topic may indicate that participants find it uninteresting and not unimportant.
The most basic method for determining what the participants think is important is to ask them! Many interview guides thus anticipate the ultimate analysis and interpretation of the data by asking a final question that has the participants state what they think the most important elements of the discussion have been.