7 Top Tips: Focus Groups

Why bother with a focus group?

You may think that you can learn enough by sending out a questionnaire and asking people to tick boxes. And sometimes this is sufficient, for example, if you only want to know how many people like a product. If what you actually need to know is why they like it, then you need to let your customers have a natural conversation about it.

Active Outcomes have a lot of experience in facilitating focus groups and want to share our top tips to help you get started. So take a look at the advice below and give it a try – you might be surprised what your customers can tell you. N.B. even if some of what your customers have to say is negative, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We have blogged on the importance of negative feedback before – check out what we have to say on the subject here.

1. Planning is EVERYTHING!

  • Invite the right people.
  • Decisions on where to hold the session and when must be based on your customers’ needs – not your own.
  • Be very clear on what you want to gain from the session before you draft your questions. This should shape the content of the sessions to get you the data you need.

2: Location, Location, Location

  • Make this as easy to access as possible, with good public transport links, fully accessible for people with mobility issues and easy to find with clear directions as to how to get there and who to ask for, and let the staff on reception know when to expect participants and where to send them.
  • Consider a neutral venue: for example, if you hold the session in your company HQ people may be reluctant to share negative opinions about their employer whilst under their roof, while this is especially relevant for internal staff focus groups any focus group can benefit from being held in a neutral setting.
  • People need to feel comfortable sharing, set up seats facing each other, remember it is a conversation and not an interrogation.

3: Incentives

  • These can be tricky to get right and divide opinion, some people swear by them others think they skew results.
  • If you do choose to offer an incentive be clear on why you are offering it. An incentive to get someone to attend at all means something entirely different to one that only covers their transport costs.
  • Remember it is not always appropriate to offer an incentive, in fact, if you suspect people may only attend to gain the “gift” the data you gather may not be relevant anyway.

4: Questions

  • These need to be open-ended, they should act as springboards for discussion, not a show of hands.
  • Think about how long you have and how many attendees, for an hour-long session with 10 people 6-8 questions would be the absolute maximum we’d recommend in order to rattle through in that time.
  • Read them out loud, check they make sense, try to run them by a colleague or captive friend. Just because you know what you mean doesn’t mean that others will! Don’t waste time explaining yourself that you could spend in discussion instead.

5: Prompting Answers

  • Sometimes discussion may stall – but be very cautious when you try to prompt any answers.
  • You are there to encourage the conversation – not to put across opinions of your own. A few stock phrases that can help get things going again are:
    • “You haven’t shared your opinion with the group yet.”
    • “Please can you give me an example?”
    • “Does anyone here feel differently?”
  • Remember to include all participants – don’t let one or two dominate the proceedings.
  • Don’t be afraid to interrupt if you need to move the discussion along, thank people for getting so involved in the discussion but tell them that you must be mindful that the time you have is limited and you have a lot more ground to cover.

6: Impartiality and Confidentiality

  • It is vital that participants know why they are being asked these questions and what the data will be used for.
  • Will answers be anonymised and kept confidential?
  • Consider using a Consent Form – we have a great Cheat Sheet to help you gain consent available here.
  • Tell people how you will protect their personal data.
  • If you are recording the session tell them how this will be used.
  • Consider using an impartial outsider to chair the session – this can ensure you get more honest answers.

7: Admin

Everyone has their own way of doing things but we find these tricks usually help the session run smoothly:

  • Number stickers: assign participants numbers to ensure anonymity.
  • Record: an audio recording allows for more accurate transcription – digital recorders are relatively inexpensive and can ensure that you don’t miss anything, otherwise, your trusty smart phone is quite likely to have a voice record function you could use.
  • Consent: get the group to sign a consent form and include the rules of behaviour for the session, i.e. one at a time, all opinions are valid… check out our Cheat Sheet for more info on this here.
  • Refreshments: offer drinks, snacks, they help people feel comfortable.
  • Activities: sometimes an activity helps prompt discussion, e.g. get people to write down their own top three ideas on sticky notes and then work as a group to establish an overall order.

    Focus Group
    Focus Group Refreshments

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