Focus Groups Generate Valuable Information: Part 1

A closer look at the dynamics of focus group processes.

Focus groups are a proven research tool. They have been used to find out what people think without the pressure sometimes attributed to one-on-one interviews or the faceless limitations of written evaluations. Richard Krueger and Mary Anne Casey have defined focus groups as ‘carefully planned discussions designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment.’

A variety of qualitative information may be attained in a focus group format. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a specific product or program, ascertaining the key components necessary to design a future workshop or isolating reflections on how skills taught in a previous program are being utilized by the former participants are all examples of attitudes, opinions, behavior patterns, cognition or knowledge that may be attained through a focus group process. The possibilities of what can be assessed are great, but a focus group is only as successful as its components – facilitator(s), participants, timing, and the appropriate questions.

Focus groups are usually conducted by a trained facilitator, with each group consisting of 6-10 people and lasting about an hour. Although these numbers and time allotment are optimum, it is not unusual to experience a larger number of participants in one group, untrained but prepared facilitators with key questions and longer discussion periods, often dependent on the topic and time frames available.

The concept of bringing people together in a group facilitated discussion over issues, projects or other points of interest is not new. However, it was not until the 1950’s that focus groups became a recognized evaluative process when it was introduced to help market researchers understand their customer and the products they used.

Several decades after the introduction of focus groups for marketing purposes, social scientists began to see the benefits of using group interviews to obtain more than just marketing information. They discovered focus groups could be a useful tool to research societal behavior and relationship patterns. In the 1990’s both Bill Clinton and George Bush consulted focus groups to help gain insight into the mood of the country. What were people thinking? What was the future outlook of the voters? What did they care about? What influenced their decisions at the ballet box?

As with the Bill Clinton and George Bush voter discussions, focus groups have many useful applications. However, is important to note that they also have a number of limitations. Focus groups are not for developing consensus or group decision making, the data can be difficult and time consuming to analyze, a large number of participants may be needed to balance the unique outcomes of individuals and it is not a quantitative evaluation process.

Nonetheless, Michigan State University Extension staff has used focus group interviews in a variety of settings to procure the information they were seeking. As a continuation of this article, Part 2 will list specific guidelines developed for follow-up research of the 2010 NE Michigan Annie’s Project participants, as well as broader recommendations for conducting a successful focus group discussion.

The MSU Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers skill building and training in several areas, including communicating through conflict and facilitation skills development

Other articles in this series:

Did you find this article useful?