Written by: Anne Betzner
There are a wide range of qualitative methods available: focus groups, in-depth interviews, participant observation, photo analysis, just to name a few. When are focus groups the right choice?
Focus groups are best used to assess a group response. By bringing people together to answer a set of planned questions, an evaluator can assess how individuals respond within a group and the level of consensus that develops through discussion. One situation where a group response is useful is gathering information about potential new policies or community-level initiatives. For example, we conducted focus groups to assess participants’ opinions about new policies to limit non-smokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke. Because policies are implemented and experienced at a community level, the group setting of a focus group was an ideal way to learn more about people’s opinions.
Focus groups also provide the opportunity to see how people’s opinions change in a group setting. One interesting exercise is to ask participants to respond to a question privately on paper prior to discussing the issue as a group. By examining individuals’ private responses against group discussion, an evaluator can see how a person’s thinking changes when talking with others.
Another great use of focus groups is to get people’s reactions to an idea or product. Because a gut reaction is immediate, and can be expressed quickly, a focus group is a great way to learn what people think about something specific.
Finally, focus groups are good for when you want to gather information from more people compared to in-depth interviews. They also allow you to ask probing questions and gather richer information than could be obtained with more quantitatively-oriented telephone, web, or paper surveys.
And when is a focus group not a good idea?
If you want to understand habits of individuals with precision, a focus group is not a good fit because it’s sometimes difficult for all focus group participants to provide a very specific response in a group discussion. Also, if you want to really hear people’s stories about a certain topic, individual interviews might be better.
Focus groups are not ideal when collecting sensitive information because people may not feel comfortable sharing within a group. A more private interaction like an interview (for richer information) or a survey (for more precise behavior measurement, for example) would probably be preferable.
A few tips
As with all methods, take care to interpret focus groups findings carefully. Keep in mind that focus group findings are not intended to be generalized like population-based surveys. It is important that the evaluator provide enough information about the context of the study (methods, participants, conditions, etc.) so that readers can determine how well findings transfer to other situations.
It can be helpful to remember that focus groups can be combined with other evaluation methods. For example, we had participants complete a short survey after a focus group to help us collect a few pieces of information that would be used in the evaluation. Some focus group participants were also selected for an in-depth interview over the phone on a topic that came up during the focus group. You are not limited to one method – mix it up if it helps!
If a focus group is right for your needs, we have two words of advice. First, pilot. Pilot your protocol either by conducting interviews over the phone or having an actual focus group pilot. While it requires a little extra planning, it will help you refine your protocol. Second, sample carefully. Think through where your focus group participants are coming from, and what might make them different from the group of people you want to learn about. Be sure to also keep this in mind when interpreting results.
Below are a few resources that may help you determine if a focus group is a good fit for your needs.
Krueger, R.A, and Casey, M.A. (2015). Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. 5th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Patton, M.Q. (2015). Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods: Integrating Theory and Practice. 4th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.