Pioneered by market researchers and mid-20th century sociologists, focus groups are a qualitative research method that involves small groups of people in guided discussions about their attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and opinions about a selected topic or issue.  Often used by marketers who obtain feedback from consumers about a product or service, focus groups have also become an effective and widely recognized social science research tool that enables researchers to explore participants’ views, and to reveal rich data that often remain under-reported by other kinds of data collection strategies (e.g., surveys, questionnaires, etc. ).

Organized around a set of guiding questions, focus groups typically are composed of 6-10 people and a moderator who poses open-ended questions that allow participants to address questions. Focus groups usually include people who are somewhat similar in characteristics or social roles.  Participants are selected for their knowledge, reflectiveness, and willingness to engage topics or questions.  Ideally—although not always possible—it is best to involve participants who don’t previously know one another.

Focus group conversations enable participants to offer observations, define issues, pose and refine questions, and create informative debate/discussions.  Focus group moderators must: be attentive, pose useful and creative questions, create a welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere, be sensitive to non-verbal cues and the emotional tenor of participants.   Typically, focus group sessions are recorded or videoed so that researchers can later transcribe and analyze participants’ comments.  Often an assistant moderator will take notes during the focus group conversation.

Focus groups have advantages over other date collection methods.  They often employ group dynamics that help to reveal information that would not emerge from an individual interview or survey: they produce relatively quick, low cost data (they produce an ‘economy of scale’ as compared to individual interviews); allow the moderator to pose appropriate and responsive follow-up questions;  enable the moderator to observe non-verbal data; and often produce greater and richer data than a questionnaire or survey.

Focus groups also can have some disadvantages, especially if not conducted by an experienced and skilled moderator:  Depending upon their composition, focus groups are not necessarily representative of the general population; respondents may feel social pressure to endorse other group members’ opinions or refrain from voicing their own; group discussions require effective “steering” so that key questions are answered, and participants don’t stray from the questions/topic.

Focus groups are often used in program evaluations.  I have had extensive experience conducting focus groups with a wide-range of constituencies.  During my 20 years of experience as a program evaluator, I’ve moderated focus groups composed of:  homeless persons; disadvantaged youth; university pr ofessors and administrators; k-12 teachers; k-12 and university students, corporate managers; and hospital administrators.  In each of these groups I’ve found that it’s been beneficial to: have a non-judgmental attitude, be genuinely curious; exercise a gentle guidance; and respect the opinions, beliefs, and experiences of each focus group member.   A sense of humor can also be extremely helpful. (See our previous post: “Interpersonal Skills Enhance Program Evaluation,”  Also “Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries” ) Or if you want to learn more about our qualitative approaches visit our Data collection & Outcome measurement page.


About focus groups:

About focus groups:

How focus groups work:

Focus group interviewing:

‘Focus groups’ at Wikipedia

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