Facilitating focus groups - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Facilitating focus groups

Facilitating focus groups

Focus Group toolkit

My focus group toolkit

One of the things I’ve learnt to do in my job as a researcher is to facilitate focus groups. I’ve attended a number of focus groups with colleagues now, so last week it was time to be responsible for facilitating one myself. Encouraged by my chartership mentor, I decided to reflect on this on my blog as I know many librarians are involved in focus groups and it tends to be a key area people are interested in advice on.


We do focus groups for a number of different reasons; some of these have been when working with users on our external projects, but we also do research on behalf of the library so we run surveys and focus groups to find out library users’ views on particular topics. At the moment we’re running focus groups to discover more about what students think about the library’s ebooks – exploring topics such as their use (or non-use) of ebooks and why, the things they like about ebooks, and the things that could be improved.

Why focus groups?

We use focus groups when we want to further explore some of the key issues in an area. Often a focus group will be an activity done in combination with other research methods. We’ve used them to inform surveys, and we’ve used the results of surveys to identify areas to explore through focus groups. The main advantage of focus groups is the vast amount of rich, detailed information that can be gained from a relatively short period of time. There’s also the additional advantage of participants contributing to other’s ideas – sometimes one member of the group will mention something and this will spur on someone else to comment or develop their own views. It’s also a really useful way to get a feel for the general consensus on a certain topic – you can instantly see which areas people tend to agree on and where there are varying or opposing opinions. Focus group situations can be used to test the waters of an innovative idea – they’re a very quick way to get feedback on potential ideas.

What are the disadvantages?

As with any research, there are a number of things to be aware of when using focus groups. The main one is that of sampling – the focus group will usually only be a very small sample size so even if your group agree 100% on a certain topic, this still may only represent the views of a small subsection of your population. You’ll also need to consider the type of people wanting to come to a focus group as it is often a self-selecting method – often these people have strong views they would like to share which is useful but may mean more extreme views (which could be positive or negative) than your whole population.

Planning the focus group

The first time I was involved in organising focus groups we sent emails to the list of people who had indicated interest and asked them to choose which date and location they wanted to attend from a list of around 5 options. I work with two research support staff and we all have access to a shared email inbox so between the three of us we organised the attendees for each session making sure we capped the numbers so we didn’t get too many in a group (10 is our maximum), but also that we didn’t run any with only one or two attendees. We used shared documents in Sharepoint so that we could see lists of attendees for each session and we used those lists when we needed to contact groups to confirm details. I thought this system seemed straight forward enough, but in reality it was a logistical nightmare! We were constantly checking which emails had been replied to, who was doing what, and whether or not the Sharepoint documents had been updated.

This time around I tried to shift some of this administrative burden away from us by using Eventbrite for the bookings. We set up details of the different focus groups as private events (i.e. you can only find them if you have the link) and included the relevant sign up links with the emails that went out to the students. There were still a few problems with people wanting to switch groups or cancel but it was a lot easier to keep track of via Eventbrite. It also meant we could see at a glance how many we’re signed up for each group (we ended up cancelling a couple due to low numbers), and it enabled us to easily contact the attendees for each session through Eventbrite (therefore also storing a record of the message). Using Eventbrite also meant we have been able to check people in at the focus group using the iPhone app which is really straight forward.

During the focus group

Until I tried facilitating a focus group I had imagined that it was a relatively straight forward task that only needed one person. This assumption was wrong! You definitely need two people, and if you have to do it alone you really need an audio recorder. As a participant or in a supporter role (i.e. not the main facilitator) I am able to make comprehensive notes I could use to write up the focus group. As a facilitator however you really do need to spend all your attention on the conversation – encouraging people to join in, watching people’s body language and visual cues to see if they have something to contribute or they agree/disagree with what is being said. You also need to always be one step ahead to think about what you want to get out of the conversation, though of course there are times when you’ll want to explore a new issue more deeply. At one point in a session last week I wanted to ask an additional prompt question but I lost my train of thought, and that was without even trying to make notes! Fortunately I had one of our research support staff with me to take notes and I’d certainly want that support there in future.

After the focus group

It’s important to let the participants know how you’re going to use their information and make sure you do so in that way. You’ll also probably offer your participants an incentive (we find Amazon vouchers work well!) so make sure you deliver on that within the defined timescale – that way they’ll end on a good note and hopefully want to come back for future focus groups.

Lessons I have learnt

The main things I’ve learnt from my experiences so far include:

  • Consider carefully how you will arrange bookings (I would strongly recommend a system like Eventbrite)
  • Send a reminder close to the session to remind attendees and let them know what they will need to bring (this also acts as a reminder for some who may need to cancel at the last minute)
  • Aim to have at least two members of staff facilitating – one to guide the conversation, one to take notes
  • Get the right equipment and have it prepared the day before the focus group – key items include audio recorder, notepad and pen (or iPad in my case), signs for the door, attendee list (or iPhone app), question guides, and a crib sheet for the introduction to make sure you don’t forget anything
  • Explain the purpose of the focus group during the introduction and encourage an atmosphere of openness (we make it clear at all our focus groups that we will not be offended by any negative comments and we will anonymise comments so they are not attributed to a specific individual)
  • Prompt the discussion but try to take more of a backseat – you want the majority of the conversation to be from the attendees
  • Be ready to let the conversation take a slight diversion, particularly if an area emerges that many of the participants seem keen to discuss
  • Aim to ask predominantly open question to encourage discussion, but if you do have some specific closed questions try to get responses from everyone so you can get an idea of the proportion of the group for each viewpoint
  • Allocate plenty of time for the focus group (we usually schedule 2hrs – they often take less than an hour but the extra time means we have scope to explore more deeper if needed without taking up more of the attendee’s time than you specified)
Any other useful tips I’ve missed?

What next?

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to develop skills in facilitating focus groups and certainly imagine its something I will continue to do more of. They’re a really good way of getting useful feedback and people’s honest opinions, and a great way to involve the community in helping shape the future. The students who attend our focus groups seem to really appreciate having the opportunity to feed into our future planning and it’s certainly something I hope we can continue to offer for our library. It’s also a really useful method to utilise in a number of our external projects – we’re often involved in evaluation and focus groups are one of the ways we can get people’s opinions. I feel confident that I can now facilitate a focus group but I need to continue to develop my skills in getting the most out of the conversation (i.e. guiding and prompting but not leading the conversation).

  • Sarah Wolfenden
    Posted at 16:24h, 13 March Reply

    I’ve helped prepared for one focus group so far. Our student advocates arranged the people and two colleagues and I ran the session. I would reiterate a voice recorder of some type – I found it invaluable in writing up the findings later.
    I really enjoyed the focus group – students were very thoughtful and really willing to engage.
    Thanks for the write up – useful and interesting points to make as always!

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 16:36h, 13 March Reply

      Thanks Sarah, I definitely agree – it’s amazing how much you miss or you find you need to check on the recording to clarify what your notes mean!

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