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

The Fundamentals of Writing a Case Study

What exactly is a case study?

In the simplest terms, a case study is a short story that provides a snapshot and gives an insight into what you do and how you do it. It is a method that an organisation can use to illustrate the way you work and the impact that your service has had on an individual, company or client.

A good case study will tell the reader three main things:

  1. WHAT: the specific problem you needed to address
  2. HOW: your approach to solving this problem
  3. WHY: the end result


Why should you bother?

Case studies can be powerful and persuasive tools and, here at Active Outcomes, we feel they are one of the best ways to tell the world what you can offer. When they are done right they tell a story, giving real-life examples that fully explain to people exactly how you solved the problems of your customers, clients, or service users.

They can highlight your success and generate some great publicity. As an added bonus, they are far more interesting than statistics, facts and figures, though, of course, these can be integral to the case study too.

What really sets a good case study apart is the fact that it is personal. It tells the story of an individual set of circumstances, detailing the journey you take with your clients to achieve better outcomes for them and for your own organisation.


Our Approach

When Active Outcomes write a case study our starting point is always to establish your exact reason for wanting one. By understanding what you hope the study will achieve we can decide how to structure it and will consider:

  • Target audience;
  • What kind of language and tone of voice to use;
  • Where will it be published;
  • What situation to cover – a typical interaction, a specific story with individual circumstances, your ideal client, your greatest achievement;
  • Who to interview; and
  • The kind of questions we’ll need to ask to gain the information needed.

We use this information to create a framework that will inform us as to what you want the case study to say. We can then ask far more strategic open-ended questions when we interview people, this helps us keep the conversation flowing and ensures that the information we gather will meet the needs you’ve identified for the case study to fill.

When we interview the Case Study subject, we endeavour to capture the essence of their story and to tell it using their own words as much as possible.

As firm believers in the “less is more” mantra – we like to keep Case Studies brief and prefer to work within the constraints of a single page of A4 as a rule, this is around 500 words of text.


Example Case Studies

We have worked with a local Home-Start charity to draft two Case Studies to highlight the fantastic support they provide to families with young children. Home-Start offer home-visiting volunteer support to help the parents of young children who are struggling overcome various issues.

Home-Start Hull asked us to write two studies, one to tell the story of their service users, the family; and the other to tell the story of the volunteer who worked with that family to deliver their service. This gave a great insight into the way that both family and volunteer viewed the service and what they felt they had achieved as a result of their interaction with Home-Start.

We interviewed the volunteer and family over the phone and told their stories in the two case studies we’ve included below. These were submitted to a funding body as evidence supporting a funding  Evaluation Report that Active Outcomes produced.

Check out the PDF versions of the family and volunteer case studies by clicking on the links below:



As you can see from the two examples, the case studies included:

  • Direct quotes that helped tell the story;
  • A summary of the issues faced by the volunteer/family;
  • Details of how Home-Start worked with them to overcome the problem;
  • Pictures to help illustrate the work they did;
  • The end result and outcomes achieved; and
  • Guaranteed anonymity for the family as they asked that their name be changed.


Our Top Tips

  • Keep it simple: don’t use complicated jargon;
  • Have a strong opening: hook the reader right from the start (think about the beginning of a newspaper article, how the journalist will cover the “who, what, where, why and when” in a few sentences, straight away, and then go on to give more detail);
  • Less is more: people are busy, respect their time and your own, and keep your story brief to leave them wanting to know more;
  • Consider your audience: it is so important to think carefully about who will read the Case Study and what you want them to take away from it, if it is a funding body you may want to stress the added value you gave and the eventual outcomes for the service user that their money funded the interaction with, if it is for a potential new client, on the other hand, you need to show how your approach to solving a similar problem can tie in well with their company culture;
  • Use direct quotes: wherever possible, let people tell their story in their own words;
  • Permission: as best practice, you should aim to get the person or organisation who is the focus of the case study to sign off on the draft before it goes public, that way you know they are happy with the way you have chosen to interpret and present their story. This becomes more vital when the participant asks that you respect their privacy by using a pseudonym to maintain their anonymity.

For more information about gaining consent for consultations check out our Cheat Sheet to help you gain consent – available here.

If you’d like to discuss our case study writing services you can chat to us at info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, Tweet @ActiveOutcomes, or visit www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.

Cheat Sheet: Gaining Consent for Consultation Activities

Here at Active Outcomes, we work with a lot of organisations, both within the private sector and with non-profits such as charity, community, and voluntary groups to deliver consultation and community engagement activities.

We’d like to share the expertise we’ve built up with you and today we’re going to explain exactly how to go about gaining consent from participants in your consultation activity.

Getting Started

Firstly, it is not always necessary to ask for consent, especially when the person being consulted has decided to do it without you prompting them, for example, if they click on a link to complete an online survey to leave feedback about the delivery service they experienced when your product was delivered. This implies consent as they understand what they are providing the information for and have a good idea about how it will be used.

For other kinds of consultation, and in particular, those that will ask for information which the respondent may feel is personally sensitive, it is best practice to provide a short explanation about why you are asking these questions, what the data will be used for and how you will protect any confidential information.

So, for example, while it may not be practical to ask a person you speak to during a telephone interview to complete and sign a written form, you can read out a pre-prepared statement that explains the reasons for your consultation and then ask that they provide consent orally in order to proceed any further with the consultation.


If you are going to speak with respondents directly, one of the easiest ways to record consent is to create a form that participants can sign. This could be as simple as a table that they can each sign and date to say that they have read and understood the text explaining the consultation and agree to the terms. See the example below:

Consent List Template-page-001

This type of form helps people understand what they have been asked to do and can be passed around a group quickly so that it does not take a lot of time if you are limited on that front. However, it does only cover the basics. If you are undertaking more in-depth consultation, we recommend you create a form that each individual can read and refer to alone so that they can make a better assessment about whether they feel comfortable proceeding, without feeling pressured to scan the text, sign their name and pass it on to the person next to them.

What to Include

When designing a consent form we suggest you include the following information:

  • Purpose: Explain why you are asking the questions and what their answers may be used for. Try to be as specific as possible, you can consider having tick boxes so people can consent to one aspect and not another (for example, they could agree that their answers can be used anonymously to feed into an evaluation report that is sent to a funding body but not that they can be made available online on your website).
  • Confidentiality: If you will be maintaining anonymity for participants tell them, if you will not then explain your reasons for asking for this. Tell participants how you will store, process and protect the security of any personally identifiable information they provide to you.
  • Introductions: Some participants may not be familiar with you or your work, introduce the facilitator of the session by name and any other assistants or observers who will be present, tell them about your organisation and what it does.
  • Duration: Be up-front about the amount of time that will be required. If you run the session as a drop-in and participants can leave at any time let them know. If they are required to take part in the full session and it is vital they are present for every question, tell them so before you get started.
  • Procedural Information: Let participants know any important safety information, such as emergency exits, and the location of any facilities they may need to use in the course of the session. Consider explaining how the consultation activity will work as your participants may never have taken part in a focus group or round-table discussion before. Tell them what behaviour is appropriate, for example, not to talk over others, to allow everyone to speak, to help themselves to refreshments.
  • Recording/Photography Consent: As an additional aspect of the consent process, if you will record the session in any format, video, audio or photography, ask for permission to do so, especially if you intend to share images of the people involved publically.

You may have specific requirements to add to this list and some of the information we suggest you include will not be relevant, but we think the above bullet points provide a good starting point for creating a Consultation Consent Form.

We have attached a link to a simple Focus Group Consent Form to help you get started and we’ve placed an image of the document below, click the link that follows to see the PDF version: Focus Group Consent Form.

Focus Group Consent Form-page-001

Remember, try and keep things simple so that everyone understands what information you want and what you are trying to achieve in your consultation.

For more information about the range of consultation and community engagement activities that Active Outcomes offer visit www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.




The Hard Truth about Negative Feedback

I’m going to start off by saying that all feedback is important. Great feedback from your service users that you can instantly share with the world to let everyone know what you can offer is a fantastic marketing tool. Plus, it makes you feel good about what you have achieved. Win win.

Do you sense a ‘but’ might be coming up…?

But, negative feedback can be so much more important. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the phrase ‘We learn from our mistakes‘ or some variant along those lines. It’s true. If people ask me what Active Outcomes do well I can explain the services I offer and direct them toward testimonials from previous clients that will help new customers understand what they can expect to achieve when working with us. What is harder to know, is what people might not like about working with us. Hopefully nothing, we really do try and take care of all our customers – but if we (or you) were getting something wrong – wouldn’t you rather know about it and fix the issue?

What is harder to know, is what people might not like about working with us. Hopefully nothing, we really do try and go above and beyond to take great care of all our customers – but if we (or you, for that matter) were getting something wrong – wouldn’t you rather know about it and fix the issue?

That’s why we think negative feedback is so vital. If you never get any negative feedback you might want to ask yourself why? Are you really hitting every target, or could you be doing anything better? If you get any negative feedback, be open to it, think carefully about how to respond to it and whether you need to take action to address it.

It might seem counterintuitive, but nobody is perfect and we think it is important to gain more negative feedback. You can try to prod gently when asking for feedback to see if there is anything you could improve, anything else they would like to see you offer. Give some examples of things you think are not working so well and see what your customers have to say.

We work with a lot of charities and we find that when we consult with their service users, the people who have been helped by the charity are so grateful for their support that they don’t want to say anything negative about them. Sometimes they simply can’t think of a single negative experience they could report, at others, they don’t want to offend.

In the case of charities, lay your cards on the table and tell your service users how important it is to your organisation that you gain negative feedback so that you can show funders that you are constantly working to improve the service you offer and are acting on suggestions from your service users.

We will be sharing more advice on consultation here on our blog and we have some videos on our YouTube channel to help you with designing consultation activities. To watch our Top Tips for Planning Consultation and Engagement Activities see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY-F5qR17yo

If you’d like some support consulting your customers, Active Outcomes can help, we are completely impartial and experienced in conducting consultation and community engagement activities. We can provide you with completely independent feedback to provide to funding bodies or to help inform strategic planning.