Focus Groups

Focus Groups are a means of gathering qualitative data and insight through exploring ideas in a small group setting where everyone is equal and can have a say. When planning marketing, behaviour change and solution design projects they allow time to explore capability, opportunity, motivations, barriers, values, and incentives of a target audience. They usually include 6-8 people, which allows session leaders to hear from each attendee on each question, probe, and keep the group from wandering too much from the discussion focus. Sessions last between 1-2 hours and can involve breaks. Attendees should feel comfortable enough to engage in discussion. You should aim to run more than one group to ensure you hear the voices of a representative sample.

You should identify the purpose of the session and the research question/s you would like to answer and then agree a sampling/targeting framework (who you would like to take part) – do all participants at the group need to have something in common? E.g., drive a car, live in Cleethorpes, have a child under 5. Or would you like to invite people across different categories e.g, people who go to the gym four times a week, and then people who are never physically active. Respondents should be aware that anonymous qualitative quotes may be used in reporting, and they should be comfortable with that. People’s consent to take part should be based on adequate information. You should make it clear that they are free to withdraw or modify their consent and ask for the destruction of all or part of their data until the end of the project or final report.

You then need to consider how and where you will hold the focus groups (community venue, online, your offices). You should invite participants formally, giving a brief outline of what will be discussed. Develop your discussion/topic guide with open questions about a topic and decide who will attend and moderate the session. You should have a core list of questions but the order in which you ask them can vary. You can deviate from the guide to pursue an idea in more detail. You can take notes during the group, afterwards, or audio record (if your attendees are comfortable with this and you have their consent). Writing notes can interfere with the process but having two individuals present during the focus group so that one individual can take notes whilst the other asks questions can be helpful. If you are audio recording a focus group, the audio recording should be deleted once the session has been transcribed.

They can be used throughout your engagement, research, and consultation exercises e.g.,

  • pre-consultation/ engagement phase to help you to develop your understanding ahead of a wider consultation exercise
  • during your wider activity with smaller groups to add more detail to your qualitative responses
  • after – to understand why they have responded the way they have and delve even deeper as you begin to develop solutions

Focus groups are best delivered with an independent/impartial moderator present, who is there to ask questions, probe, and actively listen. This should ideally not be a subject matter expert (someone who works within a service or on the subject being discussed), but if they are, they should not offer their own answers, or opinions. Moderators are there to ensure that everyone has an equal say, to keep the discussion on track and keep time. They need to be seen as impartial and should be personable, engaging and empathetic.
Ahead of the session the moderator needs to be very familiar with the discussion/topic guide, questions and potential prompts and probes. They should be aware of who is attending and be ready to make introductions. They should then be prepared to follow the discussion guide and keep conversation going throughout the session.
Moderators should deliver a mock group if possible, with potential participants or even people in your team. This can help you to
• see if questions work in practice (open/closed)
• develop follow up/probing questions
• get an indication of timing and helps to organise sequence of questions
• show you if your questions will give you the information you need

  • Greeting/ refreshments
  • Housekeeping
    • moderator explains their role, purpose and overview of subject to be discussed
    • agree ground rules
    • explain data collection, recording and confidentiality/anonymity. Reassure people if they feel inhibited that the recordings will be deleted after analysis and all data will be anonymised.
    • ensure that attendees know that you want their views, everything they have to say is important and that there are no right or wrong answers
    • let attendees know that they don’t have to talk about anything they aren’t comfortable discussing
  • Introductions and ice breaker (a little about you and your family, area you live and your relationship to the subject being discussed e.g., do you drive, how many cycles are there in the household?)
  • Main questions (about 1.5 hours of a 2 hour session). Use broad, open questions. Keep related questions together. To stimulate discussion, you can also:
    • use prompts, probes
    • score or rate things
    • use visuals like pictures, videos etc or audio and ask people to share their thoughts
    • ask attendees to people to draw things or make lists e.g., lists of words associated with an idea. 
  • Closing – go back and ask about anything that may have been missed. Ask people if there is anything else they would like to add. Sum up and thank people. Ask if they would like to be kept informed. Explain the next steps and how to claim expenses etc.

Written notes: If you decide to only make written notes then there is no need to record verbatim what was said and by who (must be anonymised) but it is important to be able to attribute comments to people by their group e.g., car driver. There should be a note taker as well as a focus group leader/moderator so that one is focussed on running the session and the other on the notes.

Audio (or online recording of virtual): this can be of real benefit as it ensures that nothing anyone says is missed. It means that you can go away and tape up a full transcript, attribute comments to demographic, or grouping and properly theme what people have said to different codes. In behaviour change/marketing terms you might use the COM-B to code the transcript barriers and incentives to change e.g., capability, (e.g., psychological, physical ability, knowledge, skills), opportunity (e.g., physical, social environment) or motivation (reflective, automatic including habitual processes, beliefs conscious decision-making.)

Video recording- as above but adds body language and participants reactions to what others are saying.  As with audio, group members need to give consent to be recorded.                                                                                                                                                        

Try and avoid inviting people along who are known for dominant/ aggressive behaviour. You can always meet with them on a 1:1 basis or in their own group setting.  If a conversation gets particularly heated, remind the group of the ground rules and/or consider a short comfort break. If it gets too bad, wait until a break, and then ask anyone who is aggressive to leave. Ask them on a 1:1 basis. 

If someone is particularly quiet, make regular friendly eye contact and try and appeal to their role. If they are the only cyclist present for example, use that as a discussion point to bring them in. Use prompts to bring in others for any situations where attendees are dominant or quiet e.g., “has anyone else had a similar/different experience?”, “does anyone else share that view/see it differently?”.