Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group

Surveys assume that people know how they feel. But sometimes they really don’t. Sometimes it
takes listening to the opinions of others in a small and safe group setting before they form
thoughts and opinions. Focus groups are well suited for those situations.
Focus groups can reveal a wealth of detailed information and deep insight. When well
executed, a focus group creates an accepting environment that puts participants at ease
allowing then to thoughtfully answer questions in their own words and add meaning to their
answers. Surveys are good for collecting information about people’s attributes and attitudes
but if you need to understand things at a deeper level then use a focus group.
If you’ve ever participated in a well-run focus group you’d probably say it felt very natural
and comfortable to be talking with a group of strangers. What you didn’t know perhaps were
the many hidden structures behind it all. A good focus group requires planning – a lot more
planning than merely inviting a few key people to casually share their opinions about a topic.
Outlined here are the details for conducting a high quality focus group. Also included are stepby-
step instructions for making sense of all the information you collect in the groups.
In this Guide you will find checklists for:
􀂃 Defining a focus group
􀂃 Designing focus group questions
􀂃 Recruiting and preparing for participants
􀂃 Conducting the focus group
􀂃 Analyzing the data
You will also find samples of the following items:
􀂃 Focus group questions
􀂃 Recruitment flyer
􀂃 Invitee tracking form
􀂃 Introductory remarks
􀂃 Sample consent from
􀂃 Data analysis format
􀂃 Synthesized report format
Defining a focus group
􀂉 A focus group is a small group of six to ten people led through an
open discussion by a skilled moderator. The group needs to be large
enough to generate rich discussion but not so large that some
participants are left out.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 2
􀂉 The focus group moderator nurtures disclosure in an open and
spontaneous format. The moderator’s goal is to generate a
maximum number of different ideas and opinions from as many
different people in the time allotted.
􀂉 The ideal amount of time to set aside for a focus group is anywhere
from 45 to 90 minutes. Beyond that most groups are not
productive and it becomes an imposition on participant time.
􀂉 Focus groups are structured around a set of carefully
predetermined questions – usually no more than 10 – but the
discussion is free-flowing. Ideally, participant comments will
stimulate and influence the thinking and sharing of others. Some
people even find themselves changing their thoughts and opinions
during the group.
􀂉 A homogeneous group of strangers comprise the focus group.
Homogeneity levels the playing field and reduces inhibitions
among people who will probably never see each other again.
􀂉 It takes more than one focus group on any one topic to produce
valid results – usually three or four. You’ll know you’ve conducted
enough groups (with the same set of questions) when you’re not
hearing anything new anymore, i.e. you’ve reached a point of
􀂉 A focus group is not:
􀂃 A debate
􀂃 Group therapy
􀂃 A conflict resolution session
􀂃 A problem solving session
􀂃 An opportunity to collaborate
􀂃 A promotional opportunity
􀂃 An educational session
Designing focus group questions
􀂉 Twelve is the maximum number of questions for any one group.
Ten is better, and eight is ideal.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 3
􀂉 Focus group participants won’t have a chance to see the questions
they are being asked. So, to make sure they understand and can
fully respond to the questions posed, questions should be:
􀂃 Short and to the point
􀂃 Focused on one dimension each
􀂃 Unambiguously worded
􀂃 Open-ended or sentence completion types
􀂃 Non-threatening or embarrassing
􀂃 Worded in a way that they cannot be answered with a
simple “yes” or “no” answer (use “why” and “how” instead)
􀂉 There are three types of focus group questions:
1. Engagement questions: introduce participants to and make
them comfortable with the topic of discussion
2. Exploration questions: get to the meat of the discussion
3. Exit question: check to see if anything was missed in the
Questions for a Focus Group on Dental Flossing
Engagement questions:
1. What is your favorite toothpaste?
2. What do you notice when you look at other people’s teeth?
Exploration Questions:
3. Who in particular has influenced your dental habits?
4. What are the pros and cons of flossing your teeth?
5. When you floss, how do follow through? When you don’t, why not?
6. How do you feel when told about possible damage caused by not flossing?
7. How do you feel about yourself when you floss regularly? When you don’t?
Exit question:
8. Is there anything else you would like to say about why you do or do not floss
your teeth on a regular basis?
Note: Flossers and non-flossers in separate groups.
Recruiting and preparing for participants
􀂉 In an ideal focus group, all the participants are very comfortable
with each other but none of them know each other.
􀂉 Homogeneity is key to maximizing disclosure among focus group
participants. Consider the following in establishing selection criteria
for individual groups:
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 4
􀂃 Gender – Will both men and women feel comfortable
discussing the topic in a mixed gender group?
􀂃 Age – How intimidating would it be for a young person to be
included in a group of older adults? Or vice versa?
􀂃 Power – Would a teacher be likely to make candid remarks
in a group where his/her principal is also a participant?
􀂃 Cliques – How influential might three cheerleaders be in a
group of high school peers?
􀂉 Participant inclusion/exclusion criteria should be established upfront
and based on the purpose of the study. Use the criteria as a
basis to screen all potential applicants.
􀂉 Focus groups participants can be recruited in any one of a number
of ways. Some of the most popular include:
􀂃 Nomination – Key individuals nominate people they think
would make good participants. Nominees are familiar with the
topic, known for their ability to respectfully share their
opinions, and willing to volunteer about 2 hours of their time.
􀂃 Random selection – If participants will come from a large but
defined group (e.g. an entire high school) with many eager
participants, names can be randomly drawn from a hat until
the desired number of verified participants is achieved.
􀂃 All members of the same group – Sometimes an already
existing group serves as an ideal pool from which to invite
participants (e.g. Kiwanis Club, PTO, Chamber of Commerce).
􀂃 Same role/job title – Depending on the topic, the pool might be
defined by position, title or condition (e.g. , young MBA’s, old
writers, community health nurses, parents of teen-age boys).
􀂃 Volunteers – When selection criteria is broad, participants can
be recruited with flyers and newspaper ads.
Sample flyer >
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 5
􀂉 Once a group of viable recruits has been established, call each one
to confirm interest and availability. Give them times and locations
of the focus groups and secure verbal confirmation. Tell them you
will mail (or email) them a written confirmation and call to remind
them two days before the scheduled group.
Focus Group Confirmation Letter
November 20, 1998
Dear ________________,
Thank you for your willingness to participate in our focus group. As discussed on
the phone, we would like to hear your ideas and opinions about teen pregnancy
in Northeast City. You will be in a group with 6 to 9 other parents/guardians of
middle and high school students. Your responses to the questions will be kept
anonymous. A $65 honorarium will be paid at the end of the focus group
discussion. The date, time, and place are listed below. Please look for signs once
you arrive directing you to the room where the focus group will be held.
If you need directions to the focus group or will not be able to attend for any
reason please call xxxxxxx xxxxxx at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Otherwise we look forward to
seeing you.
Members of Northeast City Partnership on Teen Pregnancy
􀂉 Over-invite in anticipation of a no-show rate of 10 to 20 percent.
But you will never want a group of more than 10 participants.
􀂉 Offer an incentive. In 2006 dollars, a monetary incentive of $50 per
participant is probably the minimum you should consider. Other
incentive ideas include coupons, gift certificates, paid time off to
attend the group, or an opportunity to win a big-ticket item at a
drawing conducted at the focus group.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 6
􀂉 Devise a form to track invitation phone calls. Include an “Address”
box for mailing the confirmation letter and a “Comments” box.
An example:
􀂉 Organize the times, locations and people involved for all the
groups you have scheduled.
An example:
􀂉 Reduce barriers to attending when possible by offering:
􀂃 Evening or weekend groups for those who work during the day
􀂃 Transportation or cab fare
􀂃 Child care services
􀂃 Interpreter services
􀂃 A familiar public setting
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 7
􀂉 Tell participants that the focus group will take about one and half
to two hours. Give them a starting time that is 15 minutes prior to
the actual start of the focus group to allow for filling out necessary
paperwork, having a bite to eat, and settling in to the group.
􀂉 Arrange for a comfortable room in a convenient location with
ample parking. Depending on your group, you may also what to
consider proximity to a bus line. The room should have a door for
privacy and table and chairs to seat a circle of up to 12 people (10
participants and the moderator and assistant moderator). Many
public agencies (churches, libraries) have free rooms available.
􀂉 Arrange for food. At a minimum, offer a beverage and light snack
(cookies, cheese/crackers, veggie tray, etc.). It is OK to offer a full
meal but be sure to add an additional 30 to 45 minutes to the
entire process so that everyone can finish eating before the group
Conducting the focus group
􀂉 Ideally, the focus group is conducted by a team consisting of a
moderator and assistant moderator. The moderator facilitates the
discussion; the assistant takes notes and runs the tape recorder.
􀂉 The ideal focus group moderator has the following traits:
􀂃 Can listen attentively with sensitivity and empathy
􀂃 Is able to listen and think at the same time
􀂃 Believes that all group participants have something to offer no
matter what their education, experience, or background
􀂃 Has adequate knowledge of the topic
􀂃 Can keep personal views and ego out of the facilitation
􀂃 Is someone the group can relate to but also give authority to
(e.g. a male moderator is most appropriate for a group of all
men discussing sexual harassment in the workplace)
􀂃 Can appropriately manage challenging group dynamics
􀂉 The assistant moderator must be able to do the following:
􀂃 Run a tape recorder during the session
􀂃 Take notes in case the recorder fails or the tape is inaudible
􀂃 Note/record body language or other subtle but relevant clues
􀂃 Allow the moderator to do all the talking during the group
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 8
􀂉 Both moderator and assistant moderator are expected to welcome
participants, offer them food, help them make their name tents,
and direct them in completing pre-group paperwork.
􀂉 Name tents should identify participants with a number written
largely for anonymous identification of individuals as they make
􀂉 At a minimum, all participants should complete a consent form. If
the focus group study involves a university partner or is part of a
larger research study you may also be required to secure approval
from a Human Subjects Committee.
Consent to Participate in Focus Group
You have been asked to participate in a focus group sponsored by the Women’s
Health Section of the Department of Public Health and Environment. The purpose
of the group is to try and understand why some women do not gain enough weight
during pregnancy. The information learned in the focus groups will be used to
design public health messages intended to encourage women to gain adequate
weight during pregnancy.
You can choose whether or not to participate in the focus group and stop at any
time. Although the focus group will be tape recorded, your responses will remain
anonymous and no names will be mentioned in the report.
There are no right or wrong answers to the focus group questions. We want to hear
many different viewpoints and would like to hear from everyone. We hope you can
be honest even when your responses may not be in agreement with the rest of the
group. In respect for each other, we ask that only one individual speak at a time in
the group and that responses made by all participants be kept confidential.
I understand this information and agree to participate fully under the conditions
stated above:
Signed:____________________________________________ Date:___________________
􀂉 It may be important to collect demographic information from
participants if age, gender, or other attributes are important for
correlation with focus group findings. Design a short half page form
that requires no more than two or three minutes to complete.
Administer it before the focus group begins.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 9
Physician Focus Group Participant Demographics
Date: Time: Place:
What is your
􀂁 Family Practice
􀂁 Other:
How long have you been
in practice?
􀂁 Less than 5 years
􀂁 5 to 10 years
􀂁 more than 10 years
How many deliveries do
you average per month?
􀂁 Less than 5
􀂁 6 to 10
􀂁 more than 10
Type of practice:
􀂁 Public
􀂁 Private
􀂁 Other:
Your age:
􀂁 30 to 40
􀂁 41 to 50
􀂁 51 to 60
􀂁 over 60
Your gender:
􀂁 Male
􀂁 female
􀂉 Once consent forms and demographic surveys are collected and
reviewed for completeness, the questioning begins. The moderator
uses a prepared script to welcome participants, remind them of the
purpose of the group and also sets ground rules.
Thanks for agreeing to be part of the focus group. We appreciate your willingness to
Moderator; assistant moderator
We have been asked by _________________to conduct the focus groups.
The reason we are having these focus groups is to find out_______________.
We need your input and want you to share your honest and open thoughts with us.
We would like everyone to participate.
I may call on you if I haven’t heard from you in a while.
Every person’s experiences and opinions are important.
Speak up whether you agree or disagree.
We want to hear a wide range of opinions.
We want folks to feel comfortable sharing when sensitive issues come up.
We want to capture everything you have to say.
We don’t identify anyone by name in our report. You will remain anonymous.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 10
􀂉 Before asking the first focus group question, an icebreaker can be
inserted to increase comfort and level the playing field. Example:
“If you had a limitless budget, where would you vacation?”
􀂉 The focus group moderator has a responsibility to adequately cover
all prepared questions within the time allotted. S/he also has a
responsibility to get all participants to talk and fully explain their
answers. Some helpful probes include:
􀂃 “Can you talk about that more?”
􀂃 “Help me understand what you mean”
􀂃 “Can you give an example?”
􀂉 It is good moderator practice to paraphrase and summarize long,
complex or ambiguous comments. It demonstrates active listening
and clarifies the comment for everyone in the group.
􀂉 Because the moderator holds a position of authority and perceived
influence, s/he must remain neutral, refraining from
nodding/raising eyebrows, agreeing/disagreeing, or
praising/denigrating any comment made.
􀂉 A moderator must tactfully deal with challenging participants.
Here are some appropriate strategies:
􀂃 Self-appointed experts: “Thank you. What do other people think?”
􀂃 The dominator: “Let’s have some other comments.”
􀂃 The rambler: Stop eye contact; look at your watch; jump in at
their inhale.
􀂃 The shy participant: Make eye contact; call on them; smile at
􀂃 The participant who talks very quietly: Ask them to repeat their
response more loudly.
􀂉 When the focus group is complete the moderator thanks all
participants and distributes the honorarium (incentive).
􀂉 Immediately after all participants leave, the moderator and
assistant moderator debrief while the recorder is still running and
label all tapes and notes with the date, time (if more than one
group per day), and name of the group.
2005 Copyright © Eliot & Associates. All rights reserved. 11
Analyzing the data
􀂉 In order for all participant comments to be understandable and
useful, they must be boiled down to essential information using a
systematic and verifiable process. Begin by transcribing all focus
group tapes and inserting notes into transcribed material where
􀂉 Clean up transcripts by stripping off nonessential words.
Simultaneously assign each participant comment/quote a separate
line on the page as well as each new thought or idea therein. Label
each line with the participant and group number, e.g. a comment
from participant 6 in group 2 would be assigned the number 2.6.
􀂉 Each line is then entered into an Excel database as follows:
COMPILE 1. Use a separate Excel data base spreadsheet for each
2. Within each spreadsheet, use one sheet per question.
3. Label three columns on each sheet.
􀂃 One column for coding
􀂃 One column for the participant ID#
􀂃 One column for responses
4. Enter each separate response or idea on a separate
line with participant ID attached. The coding column
is filled in during the next phase – analysis.
ANALYZE 1. When all comments have been entered, look for
common categories or themes across the entries for
each question. The most ideal situation is to ask
several people to participate in this process.
2. Once consensus has been achieved regarding the best
categories for organizing the data, assign a number
or letter to each category.
3. Then assign the number/letter of the category that
best fits to each entry on the sheet.
4. Use the Excel ‘Sort’ function to group entries by the
categories you have assigned to them.
5. If some entries seem inconsistent for their category,
consider re-categorizing or adding another category.
It may also be apparent that one or more categories
can be collapsed.
6. Arrange categories from those with the largest
number of entries to those with the smallest.
7. Repeat for each group.
SYNTHESIZE 1. Identify category and sub-category heading titles.
2. Write a short paragraph summarizing findings for each
sub-category possibly noting similarities and
differences across groups.
3. Add powerful quotes to each sub-section
Analysis of focus group data, an example:
Synthesized focus group data, an example:


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