What We've Found
Focus groups are an
excellent opportunity to explore attitudes in-depth and gain understanding about
underlying issues. The small setting gives community members and stakeholders
an opportunity to freely express their opinions about topics that are meaningful
to them. For the project team, listening to the dialog is a chance to reassess
project objectives and goals
important points: (1) A focus group must be run by a professional facilitator
who is not involved in the project and displays no bias towards the topic; and
(2) if representatives of the project team are present, they can listen and take
notes but they cannot speak out or offer a defense at any time.
that in mind, a focus group includes these basic features:
- A carefully crafted agenda with five or six questions specific to only one
- Brief presentation of material to set context and subject.
- Six to twelve participants who understand their role is to give personal
insights and perspectives that will inform the planning process.
- Emphasis on gathering qualitative information such as perspectives and
- Informal but structured conversation and interaction among group
- Facilitator’s solicitation of, but not shaping of, opinions and
How To Do It
1. Make an Agenda
Think of specific questions it
would be helpful to have answers for – questions like "Is this really the most
important way we can spend our budget?" Or "Do people really want a straight
path or a circular route?" Or "Does anybody read this newsletter?
Do not be lured into trying to get a little information
about a lot of things. Determine a single topic and ask questions directly
related to it. Use open-ended questions about perceptions of the physical,
natural and social environment or use focused questions about specific programs
or projects and even types of behavior that may affect project viability. The
focus group does not have to be limited to writing; creative approaches work
well, e.g., "draw a picture of your preferred route for the road in your
community." No matter what approach, keep the topic specific.
Determine the Budget
Running a focus group may incur costs such as
facilitation fees and travel, transcription materials and services, meeting
space rentals, refreshments for focus group participants, and documentation and
analysis of the results.
Consider in the following steps how to use
volunteers or involve public agencies that do not charge.
3. Recruit a
Take the tentative agenda and questions and get a professional
involved. A non-biased facilitator will be able to guide the interview design,
advise on ways to collect the information and ensure the flow of dialog during
Select a facilitator whose background indicates experience
with focus group techniques and familiarity with the discussion topic. Possible
sources of assistance include marketing and advertising agencies, anthropology
departments of universities, and government agencies whose planning programs
require extensive public outreach.
4. Handle Logistics
- Find a meeting place: It should be perceived as neutral and comfortable for
all participants and easily accessible. Appropriate meeting places could include
community centers, conference centers, and school buildings.
- Pick a date and time: Schedules should be tailored to meet the needs of
participants; e.g., evenings or weekends for those who work.
- If able, arrange for token gifts in recognition of the participants’ time
and help—ideally an item related to the topic being discussed. Contact your
Public Information Officer for appropriate items.
5. Send out the Invitations
Either randomly select individuals from a
broad-based mailing list or voters’ registration list or specifically select
individuals from a targeted interest group or from referrals. Again, information
obtained from focus groups can guide or suggest possible future direction; it
does not represent public opinion.
When inviting participants, whether
through the mail or by telephone, supply details such as when, length of
meeting, where it will be held (including directions) and a brief statement of
the purpose. Focus group participants are never prepared in advance or coached
to give specific answers—their immediate gut reactions to the facilitators’
questions are much more valuable.
The optimal number of participants is
8-12. To have that many, it may require inviting many more people.
Legwork Before the Meeting
- Help the facilitator prepare to introduce key opinion leaders or others in
the community who are there to offer a short background on the project or topic
and related issues. (After the background, the individual should be asked to
leave the room so as not to influence or intimidate discussions.)
- Write out any guidelines or expectations for behavior; e.g., not
interrupting others, not offering judgment, etc. This list should be posted in
the meeting room.
- Determine how the discussions will be recorded, transcribed, and analyzed.
The facilitator would most likely record and transcribe group discussions but
additional professional assistance might be needed for the analysis.
7. The Big Night (or Afternoon, or Morning)
- Welcome and thank the participants and make necessary introductions.
- Explain how the results will be used.
- Assure the participants that the information gathered will respect the
privacy of individuals.
- Thank the participants.
- Review the ground rules including reminding any project members or those who
are involved and are there to observe that they are to remain silent.
- Allow the facilitator to facilitate.
- Thank the participants.
A group interview where 8-12
people respond to a specific concept or subject. Use It If...
Forget It If...
- You need a reality-check and want to identify likes, dislikes, and
perceptions about a specific proposal, concept, tool, etc.
- You need a relatively inexpensive and easy way get feedback about something
specific. With the right professional assistance, focus groups can be organized
in a few weeks as compared to other methods of information gathering such as
public opinion surveys.
- You want to reach a lot of different groups and compare their thoughts and
ideas – have a focus group for community representatives, one for technical
experts, one for a special interest group, etc.
- You need to reach underrepresented groups. Focus groups encourage people to
speak out in an informal non-threatening forum without fear of criticism.
- You need a comprehensive public outreach program. Focus groups supplement
quantitative or technical information gained from using other public outreach
techniques. Focus groups provide qualitative responses and are not statistically
representative of the larger community or society as a whole.
- You want to build consensus. Focus groups are about gathering specific
viewpoints of individuals or the groups they represent. Focus groups are not for
debating issues and coming to agreement.
- You are looking for a way to "sell" your idea. To do that would take
intervention in the conversation and that goes against focus group rules. The
goal of a focus group is to obtain individual opinions, not distribute
information or persuade others.
Timing is Everything
Focus groups can be used throughout the planning process.
- Run groups before a project begins to aid in developing a public involvement
- Run groups during the planning to gauge changes in public opinion and
reassess the project direction.
- Run groups as a follow-up to the planning project to assess the success or
failure of a given strategy.