Focus groups are a useful tool for getting information you need – and are usually fun for participants who attend. There are many different ways that focus groups can be used in evaluation. My source for information about focus groups (and the textbook from my focus group course) is Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. If you decide to use focus groups for your evaluation, then there are a few things you should keep in mind:
1. Keep in mind the purpose of a focus group. A focus group is selected for its relevance to an evaluation that is engaged by a trained facilitator in a series of discussions designed for sharing insights, ideas, and observations on a topic of concern. Focus groups are not the same as group interviews. Focus groups are NOT supposed to be random – they should be a group of people that have something in common. Focus groups are designed so participants build their input and responses of what others say. This mimics real life – we don’t make decisions in a vacuum. We listen to what others have to say – which is how focus groups are designed.
2. Ask the right questions, in the right order. What are you trying to learn? Decide on 1 – 2 key learnings to develop your questions around. It’s important questions are asked in the right sequence to ensure the highest quality of responses. People’s memory comes back in bits and pieces, so the early focus group questions should be designed to help get people remembering and should be more general. Then, questions should get more specific and to the point near the end of the group. Also, once people have been having a conversation for awhile, they tend to be more open. Don’t ask questions people make be hesitiant about answering right away – let people get to know and get talking with others first. Always have an ice breaker (that has nothing to do with “status” i.e. job, neighborhood, etc).
3. Getting people there is the hard part. The invitation to participants should come from someone “important” or someone participants are familiar with. Participants should receive a telephone reminder 1 day before the focus group. I usually schedule 1-3 extra people because you will always have people that don’t show up. Make sure the location, day, and time are convenient for the participants. Have an incentive. It’s standard practice to give participants $25 – $100 gift cards for their participation. Make sure to also provide snacks – or a meal if it’s near a mealtime.
4. Collect as much information as possible. I always BOTH take notes and record (with group permission) the focus groups I administer. Ideally, have a note taker. If you only take notes, you might miss things – and it may be more difficult to use direct quotes. If you only record, then you run the risk of something happening to your recording. I know someone who gave didn’t take notes and found out their recorder ran out of batteries 10 minutes in to the group (I actually use two mp3 recorders to cover myself just in case). At the end of a group, repeat back what you think you have heard the group’s responses/thoughts to be to make sure what you heard matches what they said/thought.
5. Analysis is important. Just because focus groups are qualitative doesn’t mean you don’t need to analyze anything. You should have the focus groups transcribed, and review the transcriptions for common themes. Data should be coded, sorted, and analyzed. Nvivo is the software I use – but you don’t need a fancy software, Microsoft Word works fine too. Make sure in your report to share information about the participants and how they were chosen.
Want to know more? Check out this post for more tips about focus groups.
Next, 30 Days to Quality Evaluation: Other evaluation methods and how you can use them
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