methods, program evaluation

Questions and answers on focus groups

July 11, 2018 | Pieta Blakely

participants in a focus group sit at a round table

I recently had the opportunity to present a workshop on running focus groups for a group of parent advocates. They were preparing to hold focus groups with parents to learn about their engagement with their children’s schools. The participants asked excellent and thoughtful questions that I wanted to share more widely. Here are some of their questions and my responses.

How many participants should be in a focus group?
This is more a set of guidelines than a rule. With more than 8, you may find that not everyone has a chance to be heard, and with fewer than 4, you may find that the members don’t really engage with each other. But there are a lot of exceptions.

You’ll want all your participants to sit around a table, be able to see each other, and be comfortable, so sometimes your number will be limited by the size of the table or room.
You may also want to take into account the age of the people in the room. I find that with youth, I have to work a little harder to keep them engaged and to make sure that everyone shares equally, so I might aim to have fewer young people in a group than I would adults. Usually, 4 to 6 youths or 6 to 8 adults works well.

How many people should run a focus group?
Two. One moderator and one note-taker is ideal.

What brings the participants to my focus group?
I compensate focus group participants for their time. They bring their experience and expertise so I think it’s right that they receive something for their participation. Generally, the easiest thing is to give participants gift cards for a shop in your area that everyone can get to and where there will be something that everyone can use. Target, CVS, and Starbucks are popular choices where I live. I usually give participants a $20 gift card for an hour-long meeting. This is the same whether I’m interviewing adults or youth.

But mostly, people are usually excited to share their experiences and opinions and they will be happy to participate in an interview or focus group.

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How long should the meeting be?
Usually an hour. In many cases, it will be hard for adults to devote more time than that. With youth, I find that their attention span is a little less than an hour. Meetings with young people usually wrap up in 45 minutes. This includes time for participants to get settled, to distribute the gift cards, and to explain any informed consent materials. This assumes that I am running the focus group at the participants' location -- for example with students at their school or program or adults at their work. If your participants are going to have to travel to the meeting, add a little more time to arrive, add 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting.

Should teachers/parents/students be in the same focus group or separate ones?
Your respondents might be less likely to give frank answers if their boss or teacher is in the room. I generally recommend holding separate focus groups with students and teachers or entry-level workers and managers.

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Tags: methods, program evaluation