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Frequently Asked Questions

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Focus Groups

The Community Engagement Core is able to provide assistance with the development of a focus group format and recruitment of participants.

On this website, we have provided a quick overview of what focus groups are and should include.  If you would like more assistance with focus groups, the Community Engagement Core can help.  Please fill out the online form in the “contact us” tab and we’ll be in touch.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a method of gaining information and insight into the knowledge and opinions of a specific group of individuals on a specified topic.  Typically, the groups of people chosen for the focus group all represent a certain segment of the population, sharing a particular characteristic or trait that is significant to the purpose of the topic under study.  Focus groups should consist of 6-10 people and should only last 1 – 1 ½ hours for maximum participation from all the individuals in the group. 

Why focus groups?

Focus groups have many advantages.  They are a good way to get a lot of information in a very short period of time; the social interaction between group members can give a more in-depth view of the topic at hand; the facilitator can ask for clarification on topics; and the format is more flexible than a one-on-one research interview. 

What are some challenges to doing focus groups?

Recruitment for a focus group can be difficult and the individuals chosen to participate may not necessarily be representative of that particular population subgroup. In addition, while social interaction can be a benefit, it can also be a hindrance in that participants may not verbalize their own thoughts and may instead just add to comments verbalized by other participants.

What a focus group is NOT

Focus groups are not meant to spark debates or draw support for a particular subject or person.  It is important to keep the group focused on the questions the moderator presents and to clearly present the expectation that all members be respectful of each other’s opinions and comments.  Likewise, focus groups are not a venue for participants to seek help for problems or to provide “therapy” to other participants.

Developing a Focus Group

Careful planning will determine the success of a focus group.  Some steps to consider are:

1. Planning (click to read more)

2. Developing good questions (click to read more)

3. Finding a good moderator (click to read more)

4. Recruitment (click to read more)

5. Meeting space (click to read more)

6. Wrap up (click to read more)

7. Analysis (click to read more)

8. Dissemination (click to read more)

 

Planning

There are several steps to conducting a focus group, all of which begin with good planning.  Investigators need to know what they are looking for and which population they want answers.  It can take quite a while to identify the population that the study should target, and what specific items should be asked of the participants.  It is important to make sure that the questions that are developed are reviewed by a few people in that population to ensure that the questions are understandable, that they are culturally appropriate, and they are answerable. 

A good way to invest in planning is to pair up with one or more community organizations that may have a vested interest in the outcome of the focus group.  Community organizations can be helpful in every step of the process that goes into a successful focus group.  They have incredible amounts of insight into many different aspects of their community and can offer support with information, space, and recruitment needs.  Community groups often have a need for targeted information from their community as well, so involving these groups from the very beginning can be incredibly useful and can also develop lasting collaborations for future projects.  

Developing good questions

Take care in developing the questions you would like to ask in the focus group.  It is important to only choose 3-5 questions for the group to answer and they should always be open-ended questions.  Often, questions that are reflective to a specific event can help stimulate conversation.  For instance, a focus group for elderly caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease could start off with, “Think back to when your loved one was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  How did you find information about services in your community?”  This gives the participants a reference point and it also accentuates the fact that they are all sharing similar situations.   Questions should begin as general questions and then gradually become specific to the particular topic you want to address.

Typically, the best questions to use in a focus group are open ended questions.  Yes/no questions do not offer much insight and discussion.  It is a good idea to test out your questions with others first to see how much information you can elicit with the question as it is currently written.  The broader questions should be asked upfront, gaining specificity as you proceed.  Questions that require participants to look back or reflect “to a time where…” can help the participants gain a frame of reference for the following questions.  Additionally, make sure you repeat back a general consensus answer about the question as a group “summary”, after taking into account the discussion that just took place.

Finding a good moderator

Finding a good moderator is another important factor in a successful focus group session.  Moderators should have a good knowledge of the topic of the focus group and should not look much different than the group participants themselves.  The moderator should be someone who can elicit discussion in a warm and friendly demeanor.   While the moderator will lead the session, it is important to also have someone available to help with notes and audiotapes, handouts, etc.  It is also helpful to have an assistant present to take notes and perhaps audio/video record the meeting.  The moderator will be busy listening and directing the group.  There are steps required to gain appropriate permissions from the participants for recording a focus group.

Recruitment

As mentioned previously, community organizations and religious institutions can be very helpful in recruitment efforts for focus groups.  These organizations know how to reach their members and are trusted within the community.  Offering incentives to participants, such as a stipend or even dinner, can boost participation as well.  Be mindful of your population to ensure maximum participation.  Working individuals have difficulty making meetings during working hours, which may not always be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.  This is another reason why community organizations are so helpful.  They know their community and what times will work best.  It is important to know that what is the best time for an investigator may NOT be the best time for the members of the group.

Meeting space

Meeting spaces are very important to the success of the focus group.  The room should be comfortable with reasonable temperatures, light, and ample amounts of comfortable seats.  Refreshments and sometimes meals are provided, especially if the group occurs around a meal time.  Typically, the seats are arranged in a circular fashion, so that participants can see one another.  Non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal language in a focus group.

The moderator should take some time to introduce him/herself and his/her assistant and the topic that is going to be discussed.  To avoid a vision of hierarchy, it is a good idea to ask that first names be used in the group.  Once that is made clear, the next step would be to tell the group why this group has been assembled and what will be done with the information that results from the group.  In addition, it is a good idea to explain why these certain groups of people were identified for this group.

At this time, it would also be a good idea to explain how the group will run.  In particular, that the group is assembled to find out opinions and views of the participants and that there are no clear answers to these questions.  Recognize that these questions are being presented to a group in order to gain understanding of the variety of opinions that will be presented and that all participants need to respect the fact that they will hear opinions that differ from their own.  That doesn’t mean that statements can go uncontested, but that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if others don’t agree with that opinion.  It is important to set the ground work right away, for this will set the tone for how the group will run its course.

Wrap up

At the end of the focus group, it is important to provide a brief wrap up.  This involves a brief summary with the important points of what was discussed at the focus group.   It is also important that participants know who to contact should they have questions following the meeting.  Don’t forget to thank everyone for taking time from their schedules to participate in your project.  You also should reiterate what you are going to do with the information from the group and when they can expect to hear back from you about the results.

Analysis

Analysis is the next important step.  Right after the group, jot down important points and any notable discussions you want to commit to memory.  Especially take note of recurring themes.  It may be a good idea to also write down a seating chart of who sat where and perhaps a few notes to remind you what that person looked like or some important things that they had to say.

If you have recorded the group, you will need to spend time transcribing what was said in the group.  Always keep a copy of your original whole transcript untouched.  You can make others to chop up and analyze.  There are many methods of analyzing this qualitative data.  When you are developing a report from the information you gathered, pay attention to stories told by the participants.  These can be very powerful indicators that can be used to summarize the whole process, and can be used as key points in your report.  These stories can put a personal “face” on your project.

Dissemination

Dissemination is as important to the participants as their participation was with the group.  It may be something you wish to discuss while meeting with the focus group – how they would like to learn about the results.  The Case Western Reserve University CTSC Community Engagement Core could be helpful in helping your project identify the most logical, economical, wide-spread, culturally sensitive way of disseminating the results of your project.

 

For more guidance on focus groups, please contact Michele Abraham at mabraham@metrohealth.org or Mary Ellen Lawless at mary.lawless@case.edu.

 

References & Recommended Reading

Krueger, R.  Planning Guide for Focus Groups. Obtained from  http://www.tc.umn.edu/~rkrueger/focus_planning.html on July 5, 2009.

Morgan, D. L. and R. A. Krueger, (1998). The Focus Group Kit (six book set). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage.

Grudens-Schuck, N., Lundy Allen, B., & Larson, K. (2004, May). Focus Group Fundamentals. Iowa State University University Extension. Retrieved June 11, 2009, from www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1969B.pdf.

 

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