Getting to the Core of Focus Groups

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Focus groups, interviews, and document review. They’re the trio of go-to qualitative methods used for gathering information for program evaluations and strategy planning. There are many other approaches, of course, but these three tend to be the most heavily relied upon in organizational settings. They complement and mutually inform each other. Focus groups yield collectively generated information; interviews reveal detailed, private musings; and documents provide the “public” face of an organization or community.

When not thoughtfully facilitated, the conversational structure of a focus group often takes the form of a spoke-and-hub, where participants respond to a question directly to a facilitator, one at a time, with little interaction among participants. You know this is occurring when the only eye contact happening is between participants and the facilitator, and participants’ responses don’t build upon one another’s.

Let’s talk about how to refocus a focus group.

I draw from the practice of World Cafe to modify a traditional focus group. With World Café, a large group of participants is broken into smaller groups to discuss a given question, and with subsequent rounds of conversation, the composition of the small groups change. While a traditional focus group does not usually function very well with more than 12 or so participants, there’s no limit to the number of people you can include when they are divided into smaller units for conversation and everyone has a chance to meaningfully contribute. In fact, a World Café inspired approach can be used instead of or to augment a survey, the go-to data collection method for reaching a large number of people.

How does it work?

  • Divide a large group of participants into small groups of 3-5 people.
  • Give each group the same predetermined question to discuss.
  • Encourage participants to listen deeply, provide meaningful contribution, generate collective knowledge, and take notes.
  • Direct groups to report on key findings between rounds of conversation.
  • Have participants stand up, mingle, and form into new groups for additional rounds of conversation.

Participatory conversational structures may not work in place of all focus groups. While traditional focus groups rely on the facilitator as an instrument of analysis to identify conversational themes at a later time, World Café-inspired structures gives participants the power in real time to identify for themselves main discussion themes. When you need verbatim individual input from each participant or you are not confident that the participants have the ability or trust to be able to engage in self-moderated conversation, a traditional focus group may be more appropriate.

Like traditional focus groups, participatory conversational structures benefit from being designed and facilitated by a skilled practitioner.

What if you need support? Talk to me. I can help you to… 

  • Determine whether using a participatory conversational structure or traditional focus group will yield the contributions you seek,
  • Identify and recruit participants that represent a wide spectrum of stakeholders,
  • Develop questions that will elicit the complexity of information you’re lacking,
  • Customize a conversational structure to ensure meaningful contribution from all participants,
  • Provide a warm and welcoming presence and clear directions, both of which are conducive to building trust, and
  • Interpret the multitude of data generated by the conversational process.

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