Focus groups bring together a small number of participants from a target demographic to discuss their views on a given topic. Discussions are guided by a facilitator to ensure participants express themselves freely and ensure conversations remain relevant to the area of interest.
Focus groups are structured so that participants can offer their own views and discuss and react to the views of others. This allows the observation of group dynamics, and offers an insight into the individual and collective thought processes of the group.
Discussions are typically recorded, with a report of the process produced and distributed to participants and interested parties. As questions are open-ended, the information produced is therefore open to interpretation.
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Best Practice Examples
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in conjunction with Sciencewise used focus groups to understand patient views on emerging treatment techniques for mitochondrial disease in their Mitochondria replacement consultation, informing the government’s policy on mitochondrial transfer.
When to use and not use a focus group
Use a Focus group to:
• Develop hypotheses and guide future research design. Group discussions can help to highlight particular areas of concern or interest that warrant further research
• Explore the range of views and degree of consensus on a given topic within a group
• Compare programs or policies at a preliminary stage
• Explore the meanings of previous findings that cannot be explained statistically
• Approach a sensitive subject. Focus groups offer a safe environment for people with similar backgrounds, meaning participants feel more comfortable than in a one to one interviews. The National Aids Trust for example uses focus groups extensively to understand the views of different demographics suffering from HIV. Care should be taken to ensure that participants are aware that focus groups are not fully confidential nor anonymous however
Don’t use a focus group to:
• Understand the opinions of a community with a diverse range of backgrounds. Focus group participants are selected such that they have similar experiences and characteristics
• Understand the private views of an individual. Participants’ responses may be influenced by social cues and expectations
How to Conduct a Focus Group:
1 Develop the session agenda
The context of your policy issue will inform the structure of the session, and the questions used. Having a clear and specific purpose is also helpful to provide participants with an idea of what they should focus on during discussions.
As the facilitator plays a role in guiding the conversations as they see appropriate, the structure of the session should be flexible enough to allow for this. The session can be loosely based on three phases:
• Engagement discussions to introduce participants to the topic and make them comfortable
• Exploration discussions that provide depth
• Exit discussions to explore anything that participants would like to have discussed that were not
Before getting to the main body of the session, it may be beneficial to conduct an ice breaker. This should make participants feel comfortable in the group and allow the moderator to get an idea of the personalities within it.
2 Form your participant group
Focus groups are typically comprised of 6-12 participants . This ensures the group is small enough for all participants to contribute, whilst allowing for a have a rich and varied discussion. The group should reflect the make-up of the target policy group where possible.
Organisers may wish to offer incentives if they think it is necessary to recruit the right participants and ensure they are engaged in the session. Incentives may be financial, but could also be training or even food and drink.
3 Find the right facilitators
A good facilitator should be a neutral presence. This neutrality should extend to their attitudes, beliefs, appearance and communication. In particular, the facilitator must be able to word and deliver the key questions so that they provoke discussion without inferring personal judgements.
They must also be able to intervene when discussions are losing relevance, ensure all participants are heard fairly and make participants feel at ease.
An assistant facilitator can also be required to document proceedings. They will be required to document verbal and non-verbal communication, and should have suitable experience in these areas.
Tools to use
• Mini Focus Groups
• Two-way focus group
• Duelling moderator focus group
• can lead to a greater understanding of the thought processes and values that underpin a viewpoint
• allow participants to learn from each other and develop their own view points
• can be used to engage marginalised groups who are underrepresented or find it difficult to engage with other methods, as participants are selected
• can be facilitated with translators to engage groups requiring assistance with written or verbal English skills
• offer an opportunity to observe how participants views and beliefs change in reaction to alternate viewpoints or new information
• offer an insight into the common language used by groups to discuss a topic
To be aware of:
• The small group size and selection of participants means focus groups cannot be used to gauge the views of general public or diverse communities
• There is potential for group dynamics to influence the behaviour of participants. Some participants may feel inhibited to speak, whilst others may dominate conversation. Groups may also aim to please rather than offering their own opinions A skilled and experience facilitator is therefore essential
• Focus groups produce a wide range of qualitative information. Care should be taken during analysis of data to ensure that interpretation is not influenced by bias