Focus Groups Generate Valuable Information: Part 2

The possibilities of what can be assessed in a focus group are great, but the outcome is only as valuable as the successful implementation of its key components.

The following framework was garnered from a variety of sources including work by Dr. Lela Vandenberg – Community Leadership Specialist at MSUE, Strategic Futuring – an MSUE strategic planning curriculum and Lehigh University - Conducting a Focus Group. It was used by Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) facilitators to guide a follow-up focus group of 2010 NE Michigan Annie’s Project workshop participants.

Key Components of a Successful Focus Group

I. The Format

  1. The opening - the facilitator welcomes the participants, introduces the purpose, defines the agenda and begins introductions.
  2. The questions - the questions that have been carefully designed in advance, are presented by the facilitator to the participants.
  3. The closing - the focus group activity is concluded, the facilitator thanks the participants, provides an opportunity and information that will allow further input, explains how the data will be used and shares when the larger process will be completed. 

II. The Facilitator

  • Arranges the room so all participants can view one another: U-shaped seating or all at one table is best. Ensures supplies are available.
  • Greets participants and helps them feel welcome.
  • Ensures that an in-person note-taker and/or a recording device are used for comprehensive notes. The facilitator should not be the note-taker. The in-person note-taker does not participate in the discussion.
  • Introduces him or herself and the recorder. Explains the role of the facilitator and that the interview will be recorded.
  • Reviews the written focus group guidelines or ground rules with the participants.
  • Remains neutral throughout the process. Any perception of bias toward one person or type of answer can alter the outcome.
  • Makes sure every participant can be heard and draws out quieter participants.
  • Strives for full answers by asking for further information - “Can you provide an example?” or “Would you explain that further?”
  • Keeps the discussion on track and asks the key questions.
  • Closes the discussion by asking each participant to make a concluding summary statement or answer a closing question that reflects the discussion, such as “do you have one final comment as we end this focus group session?” or “As we close this meeting today, is there one or two words that best describes your feelings about the discussion we have had today?”.
  • Monitors the time closely.

III. The Recorder

  • Listens and stays quiet.
  • Takes notes on a tablet or flip chart.
  • Captures themes and quotable “one-liners”.
  • After the focus group, checks notes to clarify spelling or words that may be difficult to understand and numbers pages.
  • Consults with the facilitator about their notes and perceptions.

IV. The Participants

  • It is important to have enough people to generate a good discussion but not too many that the discussion becomes overwhelming – and participants are not allotted enough opportunity to contribute.
  • Most researchers recommend somewhere between 6-10 participants.

V. The Results

  • The recorder should review the session with the facilitator within a couple of days to capture fresh impressions, look for trends and surprises or unexpected comments that are worth noting.
  • The report should include details of the session, results and conclusions. Some literature says to verify accuracy a draft of the report should be circulated to participants before releasing to a wider audience.

A well-planned and executed focus group can generate new ideas, create connections, build relationships and illicit in-depth responses about new projects, initiatives or programs, as well as follow-up on previously administered projects, initiatives or programs.

For more detail about how to plan, conduct and use focus group processes try some of these resources: Toolkit for Conducting Focus Groups, Helpful Hints for Conducting a Focus Group, Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews and Using Focus Groups for Evaluation.

The MSU Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers skill building and training in several areas, including communicating through conflict and facilitation skills development.

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