Interviews and focus groups remain the most common methods of data collection in qualitative research.

Interviews explore the beliefs and experiences of the individual, whereas focus groups collect data from multiple participants at once.  Both methods provide essential data for any qualitative research project.

However getting the right data during focus group interviews requires careful pre-planning.  Here are five essential questions every researcher should consider when organising a focus group:

What are your goals?

Focus groups help you to clarify, extend, qualify and challenge data that you collected in other research methods. To get this deeper insight, you want will to be clear from the outset what your goals are. Knowing what your goals are will help ensure you don’t go off track into irrelevant lines of investigation during the focus group discussion.

Some key questions you can ask yourself are:

- What else do I need to know?

- What am I hoping to find out?

- Why?

- To what end?

Setting clear goals at the beginning will help ensure that the rest of your focus group organisation will lead to capturing relevant and insightful data.

Who do you need to talk with and why?

Now that you know your goals, you will have a better idea of who you need to talk with and why. Getting the right demographic composition for your focus groups is essential to getting pertinent data out of your qualitative research. For example, if you are investigating millennials attitudes towards environmental issues, a focus group full of 80 year-olds will not provide relevant data.

Key questions to ask yourself are:

- What types of individuals are relevant?

- Are there any specific demographics (i.e. gender, age, occupation, interests,         geographic location, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc) that are      essential/should be excluded?

- Do I want a homogeneous group, with very similar demographic characteristics,   or heterogeneous, with very different demographic characteristics?

Knowing which type of individual you need to talk to, will help you to find and reach out to those individuals easier.

Where do you want to conduct your focus group?

Today’s technological advances has opened up the ways to conduct qualitative research.  Traditionally, you would have to gather all the participants at the same physical location.  Now focus groups can be conducted online. Each has it’s pros and cons.

Online focus groups are easier and more cost effective to organise.  You don’t have to secure a physical venue, which could incur a charge.  Additionally, it is more convenient and cheaper for participants to join from geographically diverse locations. Moreover, online focus groups could make participants feel more comfortable and relaxed as they are in a familiar environment and online chat boxes can disguise the identity of the participant.  On the other hand, it is easy for participants to multi-task and lose focus. It is also more difficult to monitor non-verbal communication.

In-person focus groups tend to provide a deeper level of insight as moderator’s are able to adjust the discussion based on participants body language. Additionally, group dynamics become more personal, which may lead to a deeper opening up of thoughts. However, financial constraints make it more challenging to get the right participants. It can also be challenging to find a place and time that is convenient for the type of individuals you want to be in your focus group.

The decision on which option to choose will come down to time constraints, financial considerations, and the insights you are hoping to gain.

How should you capture the content?

Capturing every word that is said during your focus group is essential when analysing the data later and comparing it to notes from other data collection methods.  You will need to do more than just take written notes. You should be sure to record or videotape the entire event as well.

Recording the entire focus group either by audio or video, will allow you to later convert the audio to text. Having a full transcription of what was said during the focus group will make it easier for you to analyse the data, ensure you capture every detail that is discussed, and free up your time during the focus group discussion to concentrate on the participants non-verbal communication.

But which method should you chose?

At the very least, you need to record the audio portion of the session using good quality audio recording equipment. However, if it is possible, you should video the focus group session so that you can watch the participant’s body language during the discussion.

Where you plan to conduct your focus group might be a factor.  If you conduct your focus group online, the online tool you use will determine if whether you can capture the audio, video or both.

If you are conducting the focus group in-person, a combination of both video and audio is preferred in order to capture both high quality audio for the automatic transcription later and for capturing non-verbal cues.  For an in-person focus group a good quality multi-directional external microphone is essential to cope with the variation in volume of different speakers. If you additionally add videotaping, you will likely need more than one camera to capture the whole group.

Budgets and where you conduct the focus group will be the main factor in determining if you use audio, video, or a combination of both. The most important thing is to be sure that you record your focus group and use an automatic transcription service provider to provide a transcription of your audio or video.

What type of questions should you include? And how many?

The main purpose of a focus group is to stimulate conversation.  In order to capture a lot of content it is essential that all questions are open-ended and non-leading. Great question words to use for open ended answers include ‘How?’, ‘Why?’, ‘What’.  For example, you might ask: ‘What thoughts come to mind when I say the words ‘ocean plastic’?’ The most important thing is to avoid asking questions that have a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Every main question that you ask should also be followed up with a probing question in order to garner more information and deeper detail.  For example, with the question above a participant may say, ‘It is a major environmental problem that can’t be solved.’  You could ask the probing question: ‘Why do you feel that it can’t be solved?’

The ideal number of questions to ask is between 8 and 12 to ensure that all questions can be answered in an average 60 to 90 minute focus group session. Additionally, questions should move from general to more specific as well as having the most important questions for the research agenda asked first.

Getting relevant and insightful data from any focus group begins with meticulous pre-planning.  By asking these five essential questions in advance every researcher will able to organise a successful focus group.

If you need help in converting your audio to text after your focus group discussion has ended, then please don’t hesitate to contact us at Happy Scribe.  We provide quick, accurate, and cost-effective automatic transcription for researchers.