8 Focus groups

This chapter is adapted from the Community Tool Box Center and is used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Licence.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students must be able to:

  • Define and apply the concept of focus groups to a research project
  • Explain the various stages in organising a focus group
  • Evaluate the need to run a discussion via focus groups

What is a Focus Group?

A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a trained facilitator. It is used to learn about participants’ opinions on a designated topic, and to guide future action.


  • A focus group of parents of preschoolers meets to discuss childcare needs. Parents share their views on local childcare programs, and on what could be done to improve them.
  • A focus group of senior citizens meets at the new senior centre. What do they think of the programs being offered? What are their own suggestions and ideas?
  • An agency wants to open a group home for developmentally disabled adults in a quiet residential area. It convenes a group of prospective neighbours. What are their concerns? Can this work?

Group of students

How are focus groups different from regular groups?

A focus group is different from any general group in three basic ways:

  • the main difference is the group has a specific, focused discussion topic.
  • the group has a trained leader or facilitator.
  • the group’s composition and the group discussion are carefully planned to create a nonthreatening environment in which people are free to talk openly. Members are actively encouraged to express their opinions.

Why are focus groups used? 

Responses in a focus group are typically spokenopen-endedrelatively broad, and qualitative. They have more depth, nuance, and variety. Nonverbal communications and group interactions can also be observed. Focus groups can therefore get closer to what people are really thinking and feeling, even though their responses may be harder to score on a scale.

When should you use a focus group?

  • When you are considering the introduction of a new program or service.
  • When you want to ask questions that can’t easily be asked or answered on a written survey.
  • When you want to supplement the knowledge you can gain from written surveys.
  • When you know, or can find someone, who is an experienced and skilled group leader.
  • When you have the time, knowledge, and resources to recruit a willing group of focus group participants.

The pros and cons of groups

One advantage of focus groups is the depth and complexity of the response, as mentioned before. Group members can often stimulate new thoughts for each other, which might not have otherwise occurred. The researcher is able to collect a lot of information from a group of people in a relatively short period of time.

There are some limitations to running focus groups. For example, focus groups usually take more time per respondent than individual surveys — because recruiting a group and organizing the session can take time. Some group members might feel hesitant about speaking openly. The focus group leader needs to be familiar with the dynamics of running focus groups. Good focus group moderators can be expensive to recruit. Very importantly, sensitive topics (e.g., religion or individuals’ sexuality or medical conditions) may not yield good data if discussed via a focus group.

Here is an example of a screening questionnaire:

How do you run a focus group?

Part A: Before you begin

The group’s composition and the group discussion should be carefully planned to create a non-threatening environment so that participants feel free to talk openly and give honest opinions.

State your goals

  • “Why do I want to conduct a focus group?”
  • “Why am I doing this?”
  • “What do I hope to learn?”

Consider other methods

Are you planning to use other methods for learning about opinions as well?

In other words, so far: Think before you start, look before you leap.

  • If yes, which ones, and why?
  • If not, is this the single best method to use to find out what you want?

Find a good leader/facilitator/moderator

A good focus group facilitator will usually have the following qualities:

  • Has experience facilitating groups
  • Knows something about the topic OR is willing to research the topic
  • Will relate well to the focus group participants
  • Will work together with you to give you the outcomes you want

Find a recorder and appoint an observer

One has to make sure the discussion is documented/recorded. Someone should be writing down what is said, in the same way as taking minutes at a meeting. Arrange for this in advance. Alternatively, you can audio-record, with the group’s permission. This will take more time — to transcribe the audio, and interpret the transcription– but you will have a more complete, accurate, and permanent record. In some sessions, it is useful to have both an observer as well as a recording device.

Decide who should be invited i.e., focus group participants

Ideally, those invited should be a representative sample of those whose opinions you are concerned about.

Or suppose you are concerned about the opinions of Main Street shopkeepers. Get a complete list. Select a representative group, for example by size, type, or whether they have local or outside ownership. You probably want to hear from all kinds of businesses; so make sure you do.

A screening questionnaire may assist a researcher in ensuring that only those people are recruited who fulfill inclusion criteria.

Decide about incentives

Should you offer an incentive for people to participate?

Possibly people will come just because they want to help. Or because they think they will meet other interesting people, learn something, or just have fun. Maybe the novelty of the experience itself will be a motivator. And maybe all these reasons are true.

But maybe those reasons aren’t enough, and some other incentive is called for. Money is one; sometimes focus group members get paid, even a small amount. If you can afford this, consider it. If you can’t, then think about other possible incentives: food and drink (more than chips and soda?); public recognition; something to take home; a later training opportunity.

Decide on the meeting particulars


Pin these down before you start signing people up.

  • What day?
  • What place?
  • What time?
  • How long?
  • How many groups?

Prepare your questions

Go in prepared. Write out in advance a list of topics and questions you want to ask. This will serve as your guide.

Below are some examples of general questions. These apply largely to groups discussing a current program or service, but they can be adjusted for planned programs, as well as for groups dealing with other concerns. The precise language and order of presentation will depend on your topic and group, but some of these questions may be adapted to your own needs.

  • “What are some of your thoughts about what’s going on now?”
  • “Would you say you are satisfied with the current situation, with the way things are going on?”
  • (If so) “What are you satisfied about? Why is that?” (Or, “What’s going well…?”)
  • “Are there things you are dissatisfied with, that you would like to see changed?” (Or, “What’s not going well…?”)
  • (If so) “What are they? Why is that? How should they change? What kinds of things would you like to see happen?”
  • “How about this particular aspect (of the topic). What do you think about that?”
  • Repeat for different aspects of the topic, with variations in style. For example, if the main focus group topic was “community policing,” some key aspects to cover might be visibility, sensitivity, interaction, respect, etc.
  • “Some people have said that one way to improve X is to do Y.
  • Do you agree with this?’ (Or, “How do you feel about that?”)
  • “Are there other recommendations that you have, or suggestions you would like to make?”
  • “Are there other things you would like to say before we wind up?”
  • Some “probes” or follow-ups” designed to get more information on a given question:
    • “Can you say more about that?”
    • “Can you give an example?”
    • “Jane says X. How about others of you. What do you think?”
    • “How about you, Joe. [Or, “you folks in the corner over there….”] Do you have some thoughts on this?”
    • “Does anyone else have some thoughts on that?”

Recruit your members

Call them up. Email them. Or find them. Many third parties are available to help researchers in identifying the right mix of participants.

Example of a screening questionnaire for the selection of participants.

Part B. During the meeting

Conduct the group

A common sequence of events for many focus groups goes something like this: (The leader usually takes responsibility for carrying them out.)

  • Thank people for coming.
  • Review the purpose of the group, and the goals of the meeting. Set the stage.
  • Go over the flow of the meeting — how it will proceed, and how the members can contribute. Lay out the ground rules. Encourage open participation.
  • Set the tone. This is important because probably few of your members will have been in a focus group before.
  • Ask an opening question. This could be a very general question (“What are your general thoughts about X?”), or something more specific. Both choices are justifiable, and both types of questions might be asked before the group ends.
  • Make sure that all opinions on that question get a chance to be heard. How do you do this?

Some common techniques

  • Summarize what you think you have heard, and ask if the group agrees
  • Phrase the same question in a different way
  • Ask if anyone else has any comments on that question
  • Ask a follow-up question
  • Look around the room, and make brief eye contact, especially with those who may not have spoken

Reminder: The leader’s job is to elicit opinion, and not judge it. All opinions should be respected.

  • Ask your next question — and proceed with other questions in the same general manner. The phrasing of the questions, the follow-ups, the ordering of the questions, and how much time to spend on each one are points that the leader will have to decide — sometimes on the spot. An experienced leader will be able to do this. This is why you have spent time looking for one!
  • When all your questions have been asked, and before the group ends, ask if anyone has any other comments to make. This can be an effective way of gathering other opinions that have not yet been voiced.
  • Tell the members about any next steps that will occur, and what they can expect to happen now.
  • Don’t forget to thank the group for coming!

Part C. After the meeting

Look at the data

If you have audio-recorded, make a transcript. If not, make a written summary from the group notes. But in any case, look closely at the information you have collected.

In some cases, you can devise and use a coding system to “score” the data and count the number of times a particular theme is expressed. Experience helps here. But whether you do this or not, try to have more than one person review the results independently. (Because even the best of us have our biases.) Then come together to compare your interpretations and conclusions.

  • What patterns emerge?
  • What are the common themes?
  • What new questions arise?
  • What conclusions seem true?

Share results with the group

They gave you their time. The least you can do is to give them some feedback — it’s an obligation that you have. This can be done by mail, phone, or email if you’d like. Sometimes it’s even possible to bring the group back for a second session, to review results, verify their accuracy, and/or explore other themes.

And note: Perhaps members have now become more interested in the issue, and would like to get more involved. Consider offering them an opportunity to do so. A focus group, indirectly, can be a recruiting tool.

Use the results

Collecting useful information was the reason you wanted to do a focus group in the first place. Now you have the opportunity, and perhaps also the responsibility, to put it to use. You can improve the situation that originally motivated you, and made you think about a focus group at the very beginning.


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Customer Insights Copyright © 2023 by Aila Khan, Munir Hossain and Sabreena Amin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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