Focus Groups

A focus group is a small-group discussion, between six and eight participants are generally sufficient (Krueger & Casey, 2000). It is guided by a trained leader. It helps you learn more about opinions on a specific topic, and then to guide future action.  

Political parties and large companies use focus groups to gauge the popularity of new policies and new products respectively. NGOs can use them to assess the reaction of beneficiaries and stakeholders to projects or aspects of projects.

A focus group could, for example, include school teachers who are asked for their views on new teaching methods or materials introduced by an NGO. Or it could ask community leaders for their views on stopping a recent crime wave (thefts, rapes).

The group’s composition and the group discussion should be carefully planned to create a non-threatening environment so that participants feel free to talk openly and give honest opinions. Since participants are actively encouraged to not only express their own opinions, but also respond to other members and questions posed by the leader, focus groups offer a depth, nuance, and variety to the discussion that would not be available through surveys.

Focus groups can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time. They are a good way to gather in-depth information about a community’s thoughts and opinions on a topic.

Focus groups are like interviews in that they concentrate on qualitative, spoken data and seek to uncover people’s perceptions. However, whilst in an interview, the researcher is an active investigator who asks all the questions and controls the interview process, focus groups involve a facilitator or moderator who may take more of a backseat role designed to encourage group discussion.

Participants might be beneficiaries or programme staff. The facilitator uses a discussion guide. Note-takers record comments and observations.

When should you use them?

  • When you are considering the introduction of a new program or service.
  • When you want to ask questions that can’t easily be asked or answered on a written survey.
  • When you want to supplement the knowledge you can gain from written surveys.
  • When you know, or can find someone, who is an experienced and skilled group leader.
  • When you have the time, knowledge, and resources to recruit a willing group of focus group participants.

Focus Group Advantages & Disadvantages

It helps you learn more about opinions on a specific topic. Responses are typically spokenopen-endedrelatively broad, and qualitative. They have more depth, nuance, and variety. Nonverbal communications and group interactions can also be observed. Focus groups can therefore get closer to what people are really thinking and feeling
Group dynamics can work against lesson learning especially if the group is not carefully selected and/ or is dominated/ bullied/ captured by one or more individual
Relatively quick, easy and inexpensiveRecruitment can be expensive, difficult, and prone to volunteer bias (Krueger, 1994; Krueger & Casey, 2000). No guarantee that all those recruited will attend the discussion. Better to over recruit. The focus group leader may sometimes need to be paid
Group members can often stimulate new thoughts for each other, which might not have otherwise occurred.
Some group members might feel hesitant about speaking openly.
Can yield a lot of information in a relatively short time.Take more time per respondent that individual surveys- because the group has to be recruited

Adapted from Nyumba et al (2018) 

How to Conduct a Focus Group

Setting up the Focus Group   

  1. Decide on the purpose of the focus group. Why are you using this method? Is it to be used or ints own or combined with another as per the 1-2-3 Method.
  2. Identify and recruit participants:

This may be a representative sample covering a wide variety of groups/ views/ ages, or purposive sample (homing in on a particular gender, age group, category of actors who are likely to provide revealing results). 

Ask yourself, how many recruits and focus groups? Be explicit about the date, time and venue. Will it be a one-off focus group or might you try to reunite them later? Will you need to pay participants/ the facilitator and/ or supply tea/ coffee/ some kind of certification. Are any of the participants children or vulnerable adults?

Recruit a local facilitator if you or someone else from your NGO is not acting as moderator. Ideally, the facilitator should have prior experience facilitating groups, know something about the topic, relate well to particpants and follow your brief.  In some cases, an interpreter may also be needed. That has cost implications at the focus group and transcription stage.

  1. Identify an assistant to take notes and supply him or her with paper, pens and/ or dictaphone/ videorecording device. The transcription of recorded focus groups can deliver rich data but does take a lot of time.
  2. Decide on a suitable, accessible venue/ location in which particpants will feel at ease. Usually, it is best if the group forms a circle or oval shape.

Acting as Facilitator

  1. As a facilitator, prepare your questions in advance.
  2. Settle your audience, thank them, introduce yourself, sit (do not stand), tell them broadly how the event will be organised and set the tone of the discussion.
  3. Encourage participation by all partcipants, including those who are shy or reticent and discouraging dominant voices from takeing over. Use eye contact, direct questions and open as well as closed questions. Vary the tone of your voice and rephrase questions, where required
  4. Ensure that your assistant takes note of what is said and observes non-verbal indicators (body language, sighs, groans, clapping, laughing). If sitting quietly outside the circle, ensure your assistant is engaging in participant observation
  5. Allow the meeting to run between one and two hours at most. Then sum up what you believe the group has agreed/ argued/ concluded and ask whether or not they agree.

Possible Questions to a focus group

  • -Is the project well organised?
  • What could be improved?
  • Is the project helping you in your daily lives and if so how?
  • What could be improved?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • How about this particular aspect (X) of the project?
  • How about this aspect (Y)?
  • Why do you think X worked?
  • Why did Y fail in your opinion?
  • Do you agree that ..?
  • Does anyone have any other comments before we conclude?
  • To sum up, the consensus appears to be that …
  • Do you agree?
  • Some of you have not spoken so far? Do you have comments on anything that has been said so far, particularly about … ?

Analysing Results

  1. Write up your notes or transcribe your recording quickly
  2. Go back to point 1: what was the purpose of the focus group? What information have you learnt that could help you develop your Theory of Change or logframe analysis
  3. Look for patterns in your summary of the discussions

Patterns may take the form of:

  • Are people saying the same thing? Where are the views divergent?
  • Is there a young-old, male-female, uneducated-educated, rural-urban divide?
  • If so, do the comments by participants tell you why these divergences exist? Were there any particularly illuminating quotations?
  • Are particpants working on different assumptions from those underpinning your project?  
  • If so, might your assumptions and perhaps your ToC need to be rethought?

It is a good idea for more than one person to analyse the written record as that should help to identify similarities and differences in the responses of the group. More sophisticated techniques can also be used including content analysis, coding and critical discourse analysis. These can ensure more clearly structured findings.

4. Integrate these key findings and quotations into your draft evaluation document or annual report. What new questions arise out of your findings?

For more detail on organising focus groups see:
Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews, by Richard A. Krueger
Toolkit for Conducting Focus Groups, provided by Omni, is a great resource intended to assist in conducting focus groups and enhance one’s facilitation skills.

Where to next?

Click here to return to the top of the page and here to return to step 2 (Theory-Based Evaluation)