Focus Group: Understanding participant perspectives across diverse fields

Focus groups provide valuable insights by examining participant responses in group settings, aiding researchers in understanding collective perspectives. These groups are utilized across various fields, from market research to social sciences, to gather qualitative data efficiently.

By Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Introduction

Focus groups are interviews conducted in groups of no more than ten people who share comparable demographics. It examines how they respond to particular queries from researchers or evaluators. Market research uses focus groups to learn more about participants’ perspectives of similar encounters or how consumers respond to certain goods or services. The conversations might be open-ended or directed. A focus group can be used in market research to examine how a group reacts to new products or services.

They can be used as a tool for program evaluation to extract lessons learned and suggestions for performance enhancement. The purpose is to help the researcher comprehend participant responses. These responses might be anticipated to represent the opinions of a wider community if the participants are representative of the larger population. Therefore, a focus group is a type of study or evaluation technique used by researchers to gather qualitative information through guided and interactive discussions.

Sociologists, researchers, and psychologists in the fields of education, public health, political science, and communication studies also employ focus groups. Focus group data can be used by marketers to learn more about a certain product, issue, or subject. A focus group is used by the United States federal agencies, like the Census Bureau to conduct the 2020 decennial census, to test messages with a variety of communities.

When conducting focus group interviews for qualitative research, a group of individuals is questioned on a wide range of subjects (such as abortion, political contenders or issues, a common experience, or needs assessment), perceptions, opinions, attitudes, and views are sought after. Often, focus group participants are allowed to communicate and engage with one another. A focus group employs collaboration to examine and elucidate participants’ beliefs, attitudes, and viewpoints rather than a researcher or evaluator questioning each member separately.

Focus groups are frequently a very quick, easy, and effective research approach because of their interactive nature, which enables researchers to get qualitative information from a number of participants. The moderator records the talk or takes notes during the focus group so that they can be reviewed later to gain insight from the group. Focus group participants should be properly chosen by researchers or evaluators in order to gather relevant data. A focus group may also involve an observer who picks up on nonverbal cues like body language and the presence of persons who seem like they could contribute but choose not to speak.

History

The 1940s saw the introduction of focus groups as a research technique for market analysis of radio soaps.  Robert K. Merton used focus groups during World War 2 to examine the efficacy of propaganda. Merton created a protocol where 12 participants in a radio station would press the red button in response to information that was negatively related or the green button in response to information that was positively associated. Subsequently, Merton developed an interviewing process in order to acquire an additional understanding of the participants’ subjective responses in focus groups.

Later on, he started the Bureau of Applied Social Research’s focus group. After Merton released a study on focused discussions during the 1980s, sociologists began using focus groups more frequently. In order to get an understanding of people’s reactions to wartime radio propaganda, Paul Lazarsfeld was also awarded a contract by the government

The expression “focus group” was first used by marketing specialist and psychologist Ernest Dichter, who passed away in 1991.

Application across disciplines

1. Library & Information Science

Librarians consult patrons when planning their duties for a library’s collection in the fields of library & information science. Librarians can determine the requirements of their patrons by organizing the focus group. In addition to finding out what those people need from the library, the focus group may also be used to enlist instructors, other researchers, and professionals. Librarians may also acquire a better understanding of patron behavior and the effect of facilities on library usage by conducting the focus group.

2. Social Sciences

A focus group provides interviewers in the urban planning and social sciences the opportunity to observe individuals in a far more conversational manner than is usually possible in one-on-one interviews. A focus group can be utilized in conjunction with feedback from participants to uncover attitudes and interaction patterns inside the group. Focus group allows researchers to receive data more rapidly than surveys and improve the sample number by incorporating more people simultaneously, which contributes to their comparatively inexpensive cost.

A focus group also has the benefit of letting members learn from each other as they share perspectives and perceive research as a rewarding endeavor. This distinction is particularly significant for native researchers who use the focus group to study their particular ethnic group, as the focus group is not like the more extraction-based, conventional social science study that aims to “mine” subjects for data (together with little benefit for participants).

3. Marketing

Focus group is considered a crucial instrument in marketing since it provides valuable insights into new product development along with various marketing-related subjects. Focus group is typically used by organizations to ascertain the overall trajectory of a marketing campaign in the initial stages of concept or product development. The recruitment of participants is based on how well they resemble people who make up the intended audience for the product. Prior to the product being released to the general public, the focus group gives businesses looking to create, name, package, and test the new product the opportunity to hear from potential customers. Thus, a focus group can yield important information regarding the likelihood that consumers will embrace the product.

As naturally and casually as possible, a focus group discussion is performed. Everyone is welcome to share their opinions on any facet of the product. In-depth interviews are not the same as the focus group. To keep the conversation on topic, the moderator consults an organized discussion guide beforehand with the focus group. Generally, as the conversation goes on, it starts with general perceptions of the brand or category of products and gets more focused. To reduce the possibility of prejudice, stakeholders like those who make up the design staff are not present during the discussion of the focus group. They might, nevertheless, participate in the focus group by using one-way mirrors or video recording devices to view it.

Compared to other kinds of research in marketing, focus groups are less expensive and can yield accurate information. There may be other substantial expenses, though. Focus groups in different locations would be beneficial if something is to be sold nationally, for instance, as the popularity of something new may differ depending on its location. It would cost a lot of money to travel and accommodate facilitators if focus group discussions were held across the nation.

4. Usability engineering

Focus group is a useful tool within usability engineering for gathering user feedback on software or websites. Focus groups may be used with digital products to learn more about user motivations and impressions about the product.

5. Research spanning cultural boundaries

Adult American, white, middle-class participants served as the model for developing the focus group approach. Cultural sensitivity is crucial for research success when used in cross-cultural contexts; language and cultural modifications are also necessary. Open-ended questions and nonverbal cues, for instance, can promote higher levels of engagement in group discussions in certain Asian languages. The focus group’s structure must be carefully examined while establishing the study strategy since in some cultures that are not Western, young people will not publicly argue with an older person.

Types

Focus group variations include:

  • Focus group- Two ways: Focus groups observe one another and talk about the interactions they see and the conclusions they get.
  • Focus group- Dual moderator: Two moderators oversee the smooth running of the session and make sure that all subjects are covered.
  • Focus group- Dueling moderator: Two moderators purposefully assume opposing positions on the topic at hand.
  • Focus group- Respondent moderator: Just one respondent is asked to serve as a moderator for the time being.
  • Focus group- Client participant: A client representative or representatives engage in the conversation, either explicitly or surreptitiously
  • Focus group- Mini: Instead of six to twelve individuals, groups now consist of 4 or 5 persons.
  • Focus group- Teleconference: A phone network is utilized.
  • Creativity focus group
  • Band obsessive focus group
  • Internet/Online focus group: Computers with internet connections are utilized.
  • Web/Phone focus group: Live group with six to eight members that takes place over the telephone and online.

Standard procedures for focus group sessions

It is advised that the focus group attendees be from similar age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and genders when discussing delicate subjects. Additionally, it is preferable if the participants had never met before the debate.

Before starting the conversation, informed permission must be given. Additionally, prospective group members must be educated about the subject of debate and made aware of their rights, particularly anonymity (that their real names will not be made public in any kind of document or publication), prior to the meeting.

The uniformity of the team members, the environments, and the type of flexible questions—which are meant to encourage members to speak more freely—are all significant factors. The conversation needs to take place in a casual atmosphere, and the entire exchange needs to be captured on video or audio. Additionally, there must be an observer who records all significant debate points but stays out of the conversation. In addition to possessing in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, this observer should be skilled at interpreting nonverbal and verbal signals (such as facial reactions), and their job is to convert the notes made during the discussion into information that can be analyzed.

Prior to the meeting, the organizers and moderators must specify the topics of interest that will be covered. Throughout the conversation, the moderator ensures that each of these topics is discussed. While attempting to minimize bias, she/he presents new subjects, guides the discussion, and invites involvement.

The moderator must create an atmosphere where participants feel free to express their opinions while monitoring the conversation and ensuring that it stays on topic. The moderator must make sure that everybody is at ease and that there is strong rapport because those participating frequently do not know one another. At the start of the meeting, the goal and structure of the conversation need to be made apparent. It is important to tell everyone that opposing viewpoints are welcomed and to urge everyone to engage and express their opinions.

It is recommended by Flick that the participants receive a formal description of the process. In this stage, defining expectations is crucial. It’s possible to expect to participate in the conversation, debate particular subjects, and work as a team to solve problems. It can be beneficial for a session to “warm up” and introduce the participants to one another before the debate begins. For those present to feel more like a community, the moderator needs to help them find common ground. After “discussion stimuli,” which can be anything from an intriguing thesis to a short movie, a written lecture, or the emergence of a real-world issue that needs to be solved, the talk itself truly happens.

There should be no closed-ended questions. The flow from one topic to the other should be seamless, though. In order to deal with the general issue and aid participants in understanding the larger context, the discussion should ideally begin with opening questions. Questions intended to gather the particular information sought should come after the generic ones. Summarizing the members’ viewpoints should be the primary objective of the group’s final task.

A focus group conducted online

Focus groups are usually held in person, however with the advancement of technology, researchers can now perform qualitative studies online. Online techniques are divided into two categories: asynchronous and synchronous. Researchers can hold in-person conversations using synchronous approaches. Synchronous online talk aims to replicate face-to-face focus groups. Finding a time that works for everyone to attend and some members’ inaccessibility are obstacles to the efficacy of a synchronous interactive focus group.

Asynchronous techniques gather participant data via email lists, forums, and other online communication channels. A lot of obstacles exist for asynchronous focus groups conducted online to be successful. One of these obstacles is the irregular participation throughout time, which delays the research. Online focus groups, both asynchronous and synchronous, have the advantages of being easily accessible and not requiring travel.

Participation from people from a variety of geographic locations is one of the main benefits of online focus groups. Reduced ability to evaluate nonverbal behavior is a drawback because qualitative analysts can benefit from evaluating nonverbal behavior.

Discussions

  • With communication that occurs in a group context, group discussions can yield information and ideas that might not be as readily available otherwise. It is assumed that hearing one person describe their experiences sparks thoughts and recollections of past events in other individuals. “A type of ‘cascading’ or ‘chaining’ effect; talk connects to, or plunges out of, the subjects and expressions before it” is what is meant to be described as “the group effect” (2002, Lindlof and Taylor, p. 182).
  • Members of the group find a language to express shared experiences. This allows a type of “vernacular speech” or “native language” to be captured in order to comprehend the circumstances.
  • Additionally, focus group gives individuals a validated environment in which to disclose with people who are similar to them. When it comes to bullying at work, for instance, the targeted workers frequently find themselves stuck in settings in which they feel alone and voiceless. Focus group thus constitutes an ethical and effective way to gather information about workplace bullying (2006, Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts). Naturally, the study team must stop harassing and safeguarding participants in order to gather data on bullying at work.
  • Focus groups, with their participatory, discussion-based format, can provide an example of how interpretations are constructed intersubjectively. Focus group is an effective technique for studying the attitudes, experiences, and understandings of people and groups since producing ‘meaning’ is inherently a socially integrated process.

Focus group advantages

When gathering data for qualitative research, a focus group offers a number of benefits. Focus group studies can be conducted exclusively using qualitative techniques or in conjunction with quantitative techniques. The selection of survey items can be aided by the qualitative information gathered from focus groups. Unexpected problems that come up during the conversation might be investigated and examined by the moderator. The conversation can involve narrative, jokes, arguments, and boasting, giving the format a naturalistic feel and a touch of facial legitimacy. Conducting a focus group is easy and reasonably priced.

A focus group typically yields faster findings and larger sample numbers than a formal interview because they take less time. They also require less resources. When the information that’s being collected is relevant to the investigator’s interests, a focus group is typically more effective. For needs analyses and project assessments, they are useful and significant. Information that cannot be obtained in another manner can be obtained through a synergistic focus group conversation. One may observe vocabulary.

Fresh, perceptive viewpoints and thoughts are acquired. Private information may be revealed when discussing delicate subjects. An additional “egalitarian” environment is created by the moderator, who keeps the conversation going and ensures that no one person can control the group. The moderator’s findings and decision-making are influenced by nonverbal behavior, which raises the possibility of learning rich, detailed information. The researcher may be made aware of phenomena that were previously overlooked or undetected.

Criticism and Problems

The focus-group approach to gathering data offers a number of benefits, but it also has drawbacks. There is less experimental control when using a focus group. It is typically challenging to analyze acquired data. Error risk increases due to the requirement to take field notes, audio or videotape the talk, and transcribe the comments verbatim. Interviewers with specialized training are needed for this strategy. Investigators might face challenges in putting together the right group as these groups can differ significantly. It is necessary to have discussions in a setting that encourages dialogue.

Additionally, discussion moderators may pose significant queries that sway participants’ opinions. The group depends heavily on the guided discussion to create outcomes, so the leader’s skill in handling the conversation may be crucial. As a result, competent group leaders are required. There’s a chance a leader may take over or hack the conversation. When a few individuals control the conversation, the results could be skewed. Concerns about the sample’s representation are probably warranted. Because respondents are self-selected, generalizing information about the group in question may not apply to the general population.

Results or conclusions may be distorted as a result of the moderator’s impact on group interactions. The degree to which each participant engages with and contributes to the conversation is crucial. Contentious subjects can cause issues since they can spark disputes and fights. It can be difficult to discuss delicate subjects. An artificial or manufactured setting could skew responses by influencing interactions. Concerning secrecy, ethical questions could come up. The validity of psychometrics could be low.

Focus groups and other qualitative research methods are fundamentally problematic due to the drawback of observer dependency, which raises doubts about the reliability of the study because the outcomes are affected by the investigator’s perspective or how they interpret what is said in the group (refer to experimenter’s bias). In the field of social science, focus groups are considered “one-shot analysis” unless they can be replicated, particularly when assessing a property-disposition link. Focus groups, particularly when it comes to the testing arrangement’s reactive effects, can seriously compromise external validity. Social desirableness bias and groupthink are two more prevalent (and related) criticisms.

A further issue pertains to the focus group’s setup. Attendees in a focus group led by a professor moderator in a lab setting with an intrusive recording device may choose to withhold their comments or attempt to respond to the moderator’s queries in a way that they believe the moderator would find interesting. The focus group setting’s inability to provide confidentiality is another issue. Secrecy cannot be guaranteed when there are several participants.

According to Douglas Rushkoff, a focus group is usually ineffective and winds up causing more issues than it is meant to resolve. Focus groups frequently select their findings to support predetermined conclusions because they want to appease their underwriters more than they want to offer unbiased perspectives or assessments. Focus group creation, execution, and evaluation gone wrong was exemplified by Rushkoff’s catastrophic launch of New Coke in the course of the 1980s.

Apple has discovered a valid justification for not using focus groups, according to senior VP of industrial design Jonathan Ive. He stated, “They simply guarantee your actions aren’t offending anyone, and create boring benign products.”

Data Analysis

In comparison to other forms of qualitative data, focus group analysis of data offers both benefits and obstacles. While certain writers contend that focus group information should be analyzed similarly to interview data, others argue that specific types of evaluation should be applied due to the characteristic nature of focus group information, especially the chance to witness group dynamics. Both individual and collective evaluation of data is possible.

Data obtained from a focus group offers the chance to examine how strongly someone believes in something. The person may choose to change their perspective or stand by it when they are confronted with alternative viewpoints or directly contested. By compiling every comment a participant makes, the researcher can ascertain whether or not their perspective shifts during the conversation. If so, a closer look at the recording might indicate which remarks made by other participants in the focus group contributed to the shift.

Collectively, focus group results can occasionally disclose widespread beliefs or perspectives. It is important for the investigator to carefully assess whether the individuals who haven’t voiced their opinions align with the vast majority or if they might just be reluctant to express their disapproval, as there is a risk that an agreement can be inferred when not everyone has spoken.

To assist in the analysis of qualitative data, numerous software applications are available. Computers are a desirable tool for qualitative analysis because of their ability to efficiently organize, store, and find information. But it’s crucial to understand that technology can only support some aspects of the examination of qualitative data—software cannot code data or take the place of theoretical analysis. The examiner cannot use it to analyze qualitative information.

Exercises

In addition to spoken questions, a variety of imaginative activity-focused questions, such as the following, can be used as an asset:

  • Free listings: Contributors compile an exhaustive list of a domain’s components.
  • Ratings: Respondents are given a list of things to rate using a scale, usually using numbers or descriptive words.
  • Ranking: Depending on the requirements, participants may either compare elements in pairs by combining things or get a list of objects to score as per a given dimension.
  • Pile sorting: Players arrange cards that represent various domain aspects into piles based on how similar or different they are.
  • Picture sort: Selected photos or magazine articles are given to the participants to read through and choose the greatest examples of a particular category or fit a specific trait.
  • Fantasy and Magic tools: As each person presents a dream, fantasy, or thought, the moderator may physically or metaphorically pass along a “magical” tool.
  • Storytelling: In order to elicit ideas for problem-solving, assess responses to a given circumstance, and track opinions regarding the subject of study, participants craft a story around the issue of interest.
  • Role-playing: Through action, participants show how they’d act or behave in a certain circumstance, how they’d handle a challenge, or how they’d deal with an issue.
  • Sentence completion: Partial sentences about a certain topic are printed out for participants to fill out and share in a group.
  • Collage: After assigning a theme, the moderator divides the attendees into teams and gives them printed resources to use with their own drawings and words to make a collage that relates to the theme.

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