Focus groups

Focus groups are much more than a way of interviewing several people at the same time. The data obtained from individuals within a group will be different to that obtained from individual interviews with each participant, so the focus group should be used only when that extra dimension of group interaction is important to the evaluation. One particularly valuable purpose of the focus group is the information it provides about how several people interact and work out a common view on a topic. Sharing experiences with others in the same situation frequently triggers responses that would not have been possible in an individual interview, though the interviewer should be aware that the group may become something more than intended; for instance a focus group of domestic violence survivors may empower and support participants as well as provide data for the evaluator.

Data obtained from this method can be rich and valuable, but the exercise should not be undertaken lightly. It is time consuming in both operation and subsequent analysis, and requires a skilled interviewer to maintain the group discussion on the right issues without being intrusive. It is advisable to have two evaluators present at these events: one to guide the discussion and the other to observe and record the proceedings.
Purpose: to obtain a group perspective on an issue – this will be different to that obtained from aggregating the individual responses of each member of the group, as the group will negotiate a shared view; to gain an understanding of an existing group’s dynamics. They can be used early on in a piece of work to generate ideas for subsequent stage, e.g. items for a survey. They can be very useful in the later stages of an evaluation to check out the evaluator’s perceptions and conclusions. They can usefully be used to engage participants in the process and help resolve methodological problems as well as generate data.
Participants: should be chosen according the objectives of the evaluation and this particular exercise, but try to ensure a mix that will create an appropriate range of views. Consider how the mix may impact upon the proceedings, for instance including line managers in a group of practitioners may inhibit what is said, but some mixings may be provocative and create interesting debate.
Size: 6–12 is a good number – large enough to provide a range of views yet small enough to enable participation by everyone and retain manageability for the evaluator.
Incentives: can be useful to encourage people to attend. Reimbursement of travelling costs may be all that is needed. Provision of refreshments can be particularly important, especially where the timing fits a meal break. For instance, a group of workers organised for a long lunch slot at the workplace, or a session for offenders organised in the early evening after work.
Length: one to two hours – shorter and the discussion does not really get going; longer and participants (and moderator) tire.
Location: ideally should be easily accessible by all participants, comfortable and welcoming. Working around a table can make recording easier without inhibiting discussion (so long as the shape is right!)
Moderator: this is the person who gives the group their task and starts the discussion, and also has the task of attempting to keep the debate on target. He/she should use a focused interview schedule to steer the debate, but use very broad prompts to encourage as many ideas from the group as possible.
Recording: good quality tape recording is important, but difficult. Two machines strategically placed will increase likelihood of distinguishing all contributions. Accept that often you will not be able to identify individual speakers, but this is generally not important. Take someone with specific responsibility for ensuring they are working, changing tapes etc., and also to write some notes of the proceedings in case some parts of discussion cannot be heard, e.g. when several people are talking at once.
Timing: choose a time that will increase the likelihood of participation