Focus Groups

A focus group is made up of individuals who share a common characteristic who participate in a moderated discussion. For example, they might be participants in the same program or residents in the same neighborhood. Focus groups can tell you what a group of people thinks about a certain topic or set of topics and why they think that way.

What are focus groups used to measure?

The purpose of focus groups is to gain insight into the experiences and perspectives of various stakeholders, such as program participants, customers, or employees of an organization. Focus groups are not merely question-and-answer sessions; they involve discussion within structured agendas, based on topics that are supplied by the researcher. Focus groups are useful either as a self-contained means of collecting data or as a supplement to both quantitative and other qualitative methods, such as interviews and observations.

How do they work?

Focus groups offer an opportunity to observe a large amount of interaction on a topic in a limited period. The facilitator plays an important role in these groups by exerting control over the assembly and running the focus group sessions. Researchers need to consider group size, selection of participants, instructions, questions, and data analysis. Focus groups usually consist of 8 to 12 individuals and are generally planned to last two hours.

Focus group participants are selected based on predetermined characteristics. Typically, focus group participants are somewhat homogeneous, but are unfamiliar with each other. The nature of the homogeneity is determined by the purpose of the study. Focus groups with neighborhood residents may select participants with characteristics such as proximity to program, use or disuse of program, or neighborhood characteristics. Other characteristics, such as gender, age, race, occupation, or education level, may play a role in participant selection for keeping the groups well represented. Different groups may also be held for persons of particular demographic characteristics. Having more homogeneous groups often allows participants to feel more comfortable discussing their experiences because their fellow group members have had similar experiences. Because of this, homogeneous groups also may generate discussions of certain common issues and experience in great detail.

Sessions begin with a thorough explanation of the group's purpose, establishing the context of the questions being posed. Focus group instruments can look deceptively simple, usually including less than ten questions, and often limited to five or six. The questions are open-ended and designed to elicit detailed responses, including anecdotal material, and give participants the opportunity to react to what others are saying. If such questions were asked in an individual interview, the respondent could probably answer all the questions in a matter of minutes. When the questions are posed in a group setting, the discussion can last for more than an hour.

Focus group data consist of the observations of facilitators or overseers, brief summary notes taken during the sessions, and audio recordings of the sessions. Transcripts can be generated from audio recordings to provide complete documentation of what was said during the group. Researchers review these data for all sessions, looking for opinions, trends, patterns, and specific information that may have been discussed. Although focus group data are qualitative and are not statistically representative, focus group analysis is systematic and verifiable.

 


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