On February 18, I attended a Focus Group Workshop conducted by Dr. Courtney “Vail” Fletcher, assistant communication professor at the University of Portland. There were about 20 students in attendance, each volunteering their time to learn how to conduct a focus group and be a part of her research study.
The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half, covering the “Do’s and Don’ts” of qualitative focus group research.
I’ve taken small groups classes and volunteered facilitating small group discussions for a couple years during my studies at UP. So, I assumed I would know most of the facilitation etiquette and procedures of conducting a focus group.
Boy, was I wrong.
My background in small group facilitation did help me to understand and visualize what would be expected for a focus group facilitator, but the two are very different.
Here is a list of the similarities:
1. A facilitator must be a neutral party member.
As a facilitator, you cannot voice your own personal opinion, NO MATTER WHAT.
You can validate and thank people for their contributions, but do not qualify them by saying, “I like that,” and “yes, I agree” or “No, I don’t agree with that…”
2. When taking notes, be accurate.
Write down the information given by the group in their exact words. This makes the volunteers feel like their voices are being heard and their opinions are validated.
In focus groups, this also helps to keep the data consistent.
3. Set ground rules
Ground rules need to be established in the beginning before any discussion occurs.
Groups should range from 6-12 people.
For focus groups, the reason is to make sure the data is consistent. Having too many members also makes the project a bit overwhelming. You need to have exactly 6-12 people for the group to start.
For regular small group discussions, managing up to ten people is hard enough. I’d actually advise having no more than ten in a small group at a time.
4. Have a partner.
The reason is to make sure the notes are taken accurately through cross referencing and double checking. This also ensures you and your partner stays neutral.
Having a partner also lightens the load when controlling the group.
5. Be an active listener.
Don’t ask your question and then not look like you aren’t paying attention. Give those speaking your undivided attention.
This makes the volunteers feel like their opinions matter and they aren’t wasting their time.
It creates an inclusive environment where they feel comfortable to speak. Focus groups often deal with personal and difficult topics; so, this is very important to maintain throughout the discussion.
Now for the differences:
1. Script or no script?
Focus groups are all about scripts.
You need to prepare and read off your script throughout the entire process. Any word or response out of script could hurt your data collection because it may change your volunteer’s reactions. It could also shift the conversation into a specific or different tangent. The conversation has to arrive at their conclusions organically and without outside influence.
Small groups use scripts mostly as outlines for flow and conversation starters.
These outlines help facilitators with timing, making sure they hit all the key questions they wanted to address, and have any prompt questions in case the group runs out of material to talk about. Small groups can get away with ad lib and on-the-fly responses. Facilitators are allowed to offer clarifying questions and provide factual evidence.
2. Video or no Video?
Focus groups ABSOLUTELY NEED TO VIDEO TAPE THEIR SESSIONS.
If you don’t, your entire discussion is wasted and cannot be used. Transcripts are word-for-word without fail.
Small groups don’t have to keep precise documentation.
They mostly look for overarching concerns and topic questions to pursue. Be as precise with your records as possible, mostly to make the group feel like their voices are being heard. Creating an inclusive environment is one of the main facilitator focuses.
3. Empathy or Sympathy?
Focus groups allow facilitator sympathy, but you absolutely need to stay neutral.
So, crying is A BIG FAT NO-NO. Sympathize and humanize the discussion, but do not look and act unprofessional by crying your eyes out after hearing an incredibly sad story. The actual storyteller may find it an overreaction. Or they may find it invigorating. Either way, it can hurt the consistency of the data collection variables.
Small groups allow sympathy and you can empathize to a degree.
As long as you can remain professional and keep yourself from voicing your opinion, then you can get away with it. But still, don’t cry like a baby. Someone may feel uncomfortable, hurting the inclusive environment you are trying to achieve.
By the end of the meeting, I felt invigorated and ready to try out my first facilitation session. I was assigned two groups, a partner, and told to stay in touch for the next big update.
I’m extremely excited and I hope my notes on Fletcher’s Focus Group Workshop has motivated you to look into qualitative research too.