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Planning and running focus groups

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Use this page to learn about how to plan for and run focus groups.

Defining focus groups

A focus group is a research or evaluation method that brings together a group of people to answer questions in a moderated setting.

The dynamics of the group, and how the participants interact, provide additional useful information.

Focus groups can be used at any point in an evaluation – for example, you might use them:

  • during a project to understand what is working well (and what is not)
  • at the end of a project or programme to understand perceptions of the difference it has made.

Focus group checklist

Prepare for your focus group

Choose your participants

  • Focus groups generally have between six and eight participants.
  • Participants: Think about how characteristics like age, gender and class might affect the group dynamic and communication. Research has shown when participants are different, this can make open communication more challenging, or affect the quality of information given.
  • Incentives: Think about how you can make it easy for people to attend. You should offer incentives like travel expenses, refreshments or payment.
  • Invitation: Contact potential participants asking them to take part and mention the broad topic. Provide clear details about the evaluation, the date, time, venue and any incentives offered.

Facilitator preparation

  • Number of facilitators: It’s best to have two - one to run the session and the other to take notes
  • Skills: The facilitators will need skills in managing group dynamics, background knowledge on the topic, and an awareness of the profile of participants attending.
  • Structure: The facilitators prepare a structure for the discussion in advance with a list of questions or key topics. Think in advance about how questions could be rephrased on the day in case they’re not understood by participants.
  • Briefing: Allow 30 to 40 minutes on either side of the focus group for the facilitators to agree on the process before the discussion starts and to debrief and compare notes after the participants leave.
  • Venue: Decide if you are having an in-person or remote session. If it’s in person, make sure you have a comfortable venue, with space, light and ventilation. The venue should be wheelchair accessible and take into consideration other access requirements of participants, such as hearing aid loops and large font visual displays and handouts.If it's remote, make sure participants have clear instructions on how to join the call and ask them beforehand about any access requirements.
  • Agree on how the information will be recorded: Focus groups are usually recorded to allow you to capture all the points made and quotes. However, you may also decide to take notes and to write up the discussion from the notes, just referring to the recording when you need to. You need permission from the attendees to record.
  • Offering help: Decide what to do if participants ask you for advice or information. Generally, it’s best to acknowledge what participants have asked for and ask to speak to them about it after the group has ended. You may want to create a list of possible support options and/or ask them to contact the charity supporting them.

During your focus group

Take notes

  • Remember to record and refer to the whole discussion and not only the points that are agreed by the whole group.
  • If you’re not recording the conversation, and someone says something particularly interesting, try to write this down word for word so you can quote it later.
  • Record non-verbal behaviour.

Keep the conversation focused

  • Let participants respond on their own terms, and define the issues that are important to them, but keep the group focused on the key topics.
  • Be aware of who's speaking and how much space they are taking up. Give everyone the opportunity to comment – particularly those who may find it difficult to contribute.
  • Respect participants’ right not to discuss sensitive topics but support them if they decide to.
  • Ask for feedback periodically to summarise and clarify key points.
  • Observe body language. If someone pulls a face, perhaps they disagree with the last point made. Ask them about it.
  • Use prompts to gain further understanding. Prompts could include key phrases such as ‘why did you feel like that? What sort of thing would you have liked to have seen more of?

Ending the session

  • As you come nearer to the end of the discussion, ease participants out of focus group mode by letting them know the discussion is coming to a close.
  • Confirm how and in what form you will be communicating the findings of the focus group to the participants.
  • Thank the participants for their time and contributions.

After the session

  • The facilitator and note-taker should spend some time reviewing the process and agreeing on how to analyse and report on the information gathered.
  • Review notes as soon after the group as possible, as this is when the memory of what was said and how is most fresh.
  • Remember to give feedback on the outcomes of the discussion to the participants, especially if you’re planning to bring them back again for further focus groups.
  • Make sure they have received their incentives and travel reimbursement

After your focus group, you’ll need to analyse your qualitative data.

Advantages of a focus group

The main advantages and disadvantages of focus groups are similar to interviews:

  • There’s an opportunity to find out more. You’re able to ask questions and check in on discussions. You can pick up on body language which may provide interesting data in itself, for example.
  • They are ideal for in-depth explorations of a subject or issue.
  • They can save time by having one group discussion rather than, for example, multiple interviews.

Disadvantages of focus groups

They can:

  • be time-consuming to run and analyse
  • be costly - requires more time for the participants
  • introduce bias - for example, the respondent’s answers can be affected by the facilitator or others in the group.

Once you’ve read this guidance, the next step in your evaluation will be to analyse your data.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 18 September 2023

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