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Special - Spatial Planning and Energy for Communities in All Landscapes Town and Country Planning Association European Union

Knowledge Pool

Focus groups

Keywords

Target groups’ interests, qualitative enquiry, discussion, expression of opinion

Introduction

A Focus Group is a small group of six to twelve people led through an open discussion by a skilled moderator. They are normally one-off sessions although several may be run simultaneously in different locations.

The moderator or facilitator leading the discussion gauges the participant’s views and attitudes on the subject. The discussions are normally recorded and a report is produced of the process and results which is then distributed to the participants. Clients or other interested parties may observe the discussions.

Focus Groups provide useful information on how people respond to particular questions or issues, but the short amount of time limits the depth of discussion that can be had.
Focus Groups were developed in the private sector and are now widely used in the private, public and social research sectors.

Applicability

Adapted for

  • ascertaining the need for the target group,
  • testing a project concept,
  • developing new ideas for the project work,
  • verifying the acceptability of an offer,
  • examining the effect of an offer.

Benefits:

  • High level of participant interaction due to the small size of the group.
  • Can lead to a greater understanding of how people think about issues.
  • Members can be specially recruited to fit (demographic) profiles.
  • Good for getting opinions from people who would not be prepared to give written answers.
  • Provides understanding of how people think about issues.
  • Allows the client to have a greater understanding of what may lie behind an opinion or how people approach an issue.
Expiry of the method

The activity of conducting a Focus Group can be divided into ‘3 main phases’:

1.  Phase – Before the Focus Group:

Define the purpose, i.e. objectives of the focus group.

  • This has to be clear and specific. The more defined the objective the easier the rest of the process.

Establish a timeline

  • A focus group cannot be developed overnight. The planning has to start several weeks ahead of the actual session; experts say 6 to 8 weeks realistically. Make sure you have enough take time to identify the participants, develop and test the questions, locate a site, invite and follow up with participants, and gather the materials for the sessions.

Identify the participants

  • Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite.
  • Develop a list of key attributes to seek in participants based on the purpose of the focus group.
  • Using the list of attributes, brainstorm about possible participants.
  • Secure names and contact information, finalize the list, and send invitations.

Focus groups should consist of six to twelve participants.  Fewer than six participants tends to limit the conversation, because there is not enough diversity to spark energy and creativity.  A group larger than twelve gets to be unwieldy, and voices get lost.  However, you should invite more, allowing for no-shows. 

Generate the questions

Because a focus group will last for little more than one or two hours, you will only have time for four to seven questions. You may to include one or two introductory or warm-up questions and then get to the more serious questions that get at the heart of the purpose. 

To be effective, focus group questions should be open-ended and move from the general to the specific.  E.g., after asking the question, “What do you like about the user interface?” you might ask, “If you could build a new user interface from scratch, what would you put in to make a better one?” or “What would make the user interface more appealing to your peers?” or even more specific, “Do you have any suggestions about what the personae (faces)—what they should look like or what they should do?”

  • Once you have a list of questions, look at your purpose statement again.
  • Keep questions that are really important and that qualify for your purpose. Eliminate as many questions as possible.
  • Rewrite the questions with good editing.
  • Order the questions that will be comfortable for the participants, i.e. moving from general to specific.

Develop a script
Generating questions is a prelude to developing a more detailed script for your focus group.
Plan on a one - to two -hour time frame. A minimum of one hour is recommended because the process requires some time for opening and closing remarks as well as at least one or two questions. Be cautious not to exceed two hours.

There are three parts to a focus group script:

  1. The opening is the time for the facilitator to welcome the group, introduce the purpose and context of the focus group, explain what a focus group is and how it will flow, and make the introductions.
  2. The question section is where you ask the questions that you designed and tested in Step 4.
  3. The closing section wraps up the focus group. This includes thanking the participants, giving them an opportunity and avenue for further input, telling them how the data will be used, and explaining when the larger process will be completed.

Select a facilitator

A focus group facilitator should be able to deal tactfully with outspoken group members, keep the discussion on track, and make sure every participant is heard.
The facilitator should be knowledgeable about the project.  He or she can be a staff member, volunteer, or member of a committee or task force.
Be wary of anything about the facilitator (or facilitators) that might make participants uncomfortable. For example, you may not want the organization's executive director to facilitate a staff focus group about a new performance appraisal system.

Choose the location

You Need a setting which can accommodate the participants and where they would feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

 

2. Phase Conduct The Focus Group:

The materials you might need for the session are listed below (9. Materials required):

  • The facilitator should arrive before the participants, set out the refreshments, and arrange the room so all participants can view one another -- U-shaped seating or all at one table is best.
  • As participants arrive, the facilitator should set the tone for a comfortable, enjoyable discussion by welcoming them just as would any gracious host.
  • Introduce yourself and the co-facilitator, if used.
  • Explain the means to record the session.  Make sure you record the session!
  • Carry out the focus group as per the plan and script.
  • The facilitator should have some room for spontaneity, i.e., asking spontaneous questions that arise from the discussion, probing deeper into a topic.

Attention to the following items will help ensure success:

  1. Set the tone; participants should have fun and feel good about the session.
  2. Make sure every participant is heard; draw out quieter group members.
  3. Get full answers (not just "we need more money" but "we need more money to hire a receptionist to answer phones").
  4. Monitor time closely; don’t exceed time limits.
  5. Keep the discussion on track; try to answer all or most of the questions.
  6. Head off exchanges of opinion about individual items.


3. Phase After the Focus Group:

Make any notes on your written notes, e.g., to clarify any scratching, ensure pages are numbered, fill out any notes that don't make senses, etc.
Interpret and Report the Results:

There are three steps to creating a report on your focus group:

  1. Summarize each meeting. 
  2. Analyze the summaries. 
  3. Write the report.
Duration of the event

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.
It is important not to overlook the time required to plan the event, recruit the participants and write up and respond to the results.

If the topic for discussion is complex or largely unknown to the participants you may need to provide reading in advance.

Participants
  • Ordinary citizens (both directly affected and interested), politicians (decision-makers). The group should be as heterogenous as possible, but homogenous enough to make a discussion feasible
  • Members of the Focus Group can be selected to be demographically representative or of a specific sub-set of the population.
  • The group needs to be small (6-12) for participants to feel comfortable in voicing their views.
Prerequisite for success

A well-skilled moderator and a good recording of the guided discussion.

Required materials

The materials the organizer might need for the session are:

  • Notepads and pencils
  • Computer with presentation
  • Flip chart or easel paper
  • Focus group script
  • List of participants
  • Markers
  • Masking tape
  • Name tags
  • Refreshments
  • Watch / clock
Principles, relevant parameters to be considered

Given the small number of participants, the results from a focus group are not representative.