A focus group is a group of people brought together for a qualitative research project to answer questions as a group. It is used in academia, political polling, and product user testing.
The benefit of a focus group is that it can gain a wide range of people’s detailed perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a particular topic. It can also save time in contrast to one-to-one interviews (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013).
However, this approach has weaknesses. Generally, focus groups cannot generate generalizable or statistically relevant insights (Guest, Namey & McKenna, 2017). Furthermore, there is always the concern that group members will influence one another’s responses, generating groupthink, in a way that could have been avoided in one-to-one interviews.
Focus Group Examples
1. Market Research
When a company is looking into rolling-out a new product or design, they may conduct focus groups prior to even deciding upon the product to create. This helps them to choose the right product that actually has consumer interest and demand.
Companies don’t want to spend all that money on research and development without knowing they can sell the product in the first place.
This is where focus groups come in. It can help increase the company’s certainty about their upcoming product designs and steer the company in the right direction.
2. Product Testing
Product testing is an integral part of the development process that occurs after a prototype has been developed.
In this stage, consumers are asked to use, handle, and operate a product in its prototype phase to give their reactions and feedback. Often, this prototype is just a “minimal viable product.”
Feedback can range from small details like the texture or color of the product to larger issues such as functionality or usability.
This vital information can help a company refine its product, improving the chances of a successful launch and consumer satisfaction when the product hits the market.
3. Political Polling
Often, political parties will gather together a focus group of, say, 8 to 15 people, to get feedback on how the politician comes across on camera. What does the population think of them?
This starts by compiling a diverse group of people from various demographic categories.
Carefully designed questions can gather answers that can help politicians and policymakers gauge the public mood on various issues. These insights often lead to adjustments in campaign strategies, policy decisions, or public statements.
Furthermore, political polling can measure the effectiveness of political campaigns or understand swing voter behavior, enabling a more targeted electoral strategy.
4. Website Usability Testing
Website usability testing entails the use of a focus group to evaluate the efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction a user experiences when navigating a website.
Participants are asked to perform various tasks on the website under examination. This could mean finding a specific piece of information or completing a purchase.
Their experiences, challenges, and any difficulties they might face are noted and analyzed in detail.
Valuable insights garnered from their feedback can then be utilized to improve site design, enhance user interface, or correct any elements that might be causing confusion or inconvenience to users.
5. Television Show Pilots
A television show pilot is the first standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network.
Usually, a focus group is assembled to watch the show and provide feedback. What did they enjoy? What lost their interest?
Feedback from this group can help the production company to modify or completely overhaul aspects of the show, or even decide not to go ahead with funding the entire season of the show.
Based on the feedback from the focus group, there might emerge script amendments, actor changes, or even different camera angles, all meant to improve viewer engagement and enjoyment based on the feedback from the group.
6. New Educational Curricula
The introduction of new educational curricula usually involves getting the viewpoints of the people who will be affected by these changes (known as educational stakeholders).
Input is sought from a cross-section of individuals including not only teachers and administrators, but also students and parents. What is their opinion of the proposed changes?
The feedback gathered can shape the way the curriculum is designed, including how information is presented, what resources are required, and how progress and success are evaluated.
If the new educational curriculum aligns better with the needs and wishes of the educational community, it’s likely to be more effective and to achieve more success.
7. Public Policy Feedback
Public policy feedback involves seeking public opinion on proposed policies or laws before they are enacted.
It first starts with assembling a demographically diverse group representative of different sections of the public, who may be invited to a town hall or similar official event to hear about the proposals from experts.
The group is then presented with a proposed law or regulation, and their opinions, thoughts and ideas are collected. Clear, constructive feedback about the policies can be used to amend or modify them.
This not only ensures the policy is effective and beneficial, but also improves public trust in the government, knowing their opinion is valued.
8. Expert Panels
Expert panels are tailored focus groups composed of individuals possessing specialized knowledge or expertise in a particular area. This group is assembled when there’s a need for informed and expert feedback.
Typically, these experts are invited to review and discuss a particular topic or product. Their task is to offer their insights, criticisms, and suggestions, which are usually more in-depth and technical than a layperson’s perspective.
The company hosting the panel stands to benefit tremendously from their insights, gaining information they can use to refine, modify, or confirm their strategies or products based on expert advice.
9. Advertising Campaigns
In the world of advertising, designers and creatives meticulously put together campaigns hoping to make the greatest impact possible. But how do they know if their ideas will resonate?
An advertising campaign focus group is assembled to view, analyze and offer real-time feedback on a proposed advertising campaign before it is unveiled to the public.
Through the observations of the group, the creators of the advertisement are better able to evaluate the effectiveness of their ad, fine-tune their approach, or completely rethink their strategy if necessary.
10. Brand Perception Research
A company’s brand is everything. It dictates how customers perceive the company’s products and services, and that perception can make or break a business.
Therefore, businesses utilize focus groups to uncover current perceptions of their brand. They take note of associations, beliefs, and thoughts elicited by their products and advertisements amongst the group.
This feedback can help the company better align their branding to the expectations and preferences of their target demographic, or it can validate that their current advertising approach is working effectively.
11. Employee Satisfaction Feedback
Companies invest in employee satisfaction feedback to better understand their employees’ needs, job satisfaction levels, and areas of potential improvement in the company. This, in turn, may help them attract and retain the best talent.
Once a representative group of employees is selected, they are asked to talk openly and honestly about their experiences of working for the company. This may cover areas such as their workload, work-life balance, rapport with colleagues and superiors, job security, and advancement opportunities.
The results can provide a goldmine of information for employers, who can then focus their efforts on addressing the concerns raised, thereby improving employee morale, productivity, and reducing staff turnover.
12. Consumer Preferences Research
Recognizing and understanding consumers’ tastes and preferences is paramount to any company’s success.
In a consumer preferences focus group, individuals from the company’s target demographic are invited to share their opinions about the company’s products or services. They may be asked about their likes, dislikes, and what elements they value most or least.
The data thus gathered is rich with insights and can help the company to better tailor their offerings to customer preferences, thereby not only boosting sales but enhancing customer satisfaction and brand loyalty as well.
13. Mobile App Usability
When creating a mobile application, developers turn to focus groups to improve the app’s usability and interface design.
In this scenario, participants are asked to use the app, performing tasks or actions, and their experiences and reactions are closely monitored. They might be asked to register for an account, navigate the app, or use various functions.
Their feedback, which often includes difficulties faced, features they enjoyed, and areas they found complex or confusing, can be instrumental in identifying and fixing issues within the app, ensuring a better user experience when it is finally released to the public.
14. Interviewing Children
In matters pertaining to children such as educational tool assessment, creation of children-focused products or services, or understanding child psychology, focus groups of children are commonly used.
A group of children might be asked to try out a new educational game or offer their thoughts on an upcoming kid’s program on TV.
Reactions, preferences, and feedback from these young participants offer invaluable insights that can help in making the end product or service more child-appropriate, engaging, and enjoyable.
15. Post-Debate Feedback
Following political debates, focus groups are often formed to gauge public reaction and thereby shape future strategies of political campaigns.
The focus group usually consists of individuals from a diverse array of demographic groupings, who are asked to share their thoughts on the candidates, the issues raised during the debate, and their overall impressions.
The responses can help the candidates understand public sentiment, effectiveness of their performance, and identify areas of improvement for future debates. This can significantly impact a political campaign by guiding subsequent messaging and strategy.
Types of Focus Groups
Researchers need to not only choose to conduct a focus group, but also choose from a range of types of focus groups, knowing that each one will have its own pros and cons.
Choosing the right focus group for your research question can generate higher-quality and more in-depth responses from the group.
Some common types of focus groups are:
- Representative Focus Groups: Representative Focus Groups are an ensemble of participants carefully selected to accurately represent the key demographics of a larger population. Selection is typically based on factors such as age, income, gender, location, and ethnicity. The group is utilized to gain valuable insights from a representative range of participants, but remember, as the groups are too small to be statistically significant, they still cannot reasonably be extrapolated to the population at large (Guest, Namey & McKenna, 2017; Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013).
- Random Focus Groups: Unlike Representative Focus Groups, Random Focus Groups consist of randomly selected participants, without regard for demographic representation (Cyr, 2019; Krueger & Casey, 2015). This approach aims to achieve unbiased, high-level insights into people’s attitudes, opinions, and behaviors as the selection of members lacks the specificity of demographic sampling. It’s akin to taking a random snapshot of society.
- Expert Focus Groups: Expert Focus Groups comprise individuals with specialized knowledge or experience in a particular area. These persons are sought for their in-depth understanding of complex topics, which can yield nuanced, valuable feedback (Mishra, 2016). Governments, for example, might bring together expert focus groups when designing public policies.
- Dueling Moderator Focus Group: A Dueling Moderator Focus Group is a unique setup featuring two moderators with opposing roles: one moderator advocates for the participant viewpoints while the other challenges them (Barbour & Morgan, 2017). This can lead to dynamic discussions, pushing participants to clarify or defend their ideas, thus producing deeper, more thoughtful responses.
Pros and Cons of Focus Groups
- Provide Detailed Insights: Focus groups provide in-depth, qualitative data from a carefully selected group of individuals. Participants are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and suggestions about a certain product, service, or concept (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013; Queiros, Faria & Almeida, 2017). Their responses are comprehensive, and often go beyond what can be captured by quantitative surveys or polls. Therefore, focus groups allow researchers to delve deeper into nuanced areas of interest, offering a rich understanding of consumer perspectives.
- Identify Unforeseen Issues: Feedback from focus groups can lead to the identification of issues that weren’t previously recognized (Nyumba et al., 2018). The open-ended, conversational nature of focus groups can elicit spontaneous responses, issues, or concerns that might not arise in other research methods. A focus group’s interactive setting encourages group members to react and respond to each other’s comments, which can bring unforeseen angles or perspectives to light (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013). Therefore, focus groups are instrumental in identifying and addressing potential problems before a product launch or new service implementation.
- New Ideas Generation: Creative brainstorming is one of the key benefits of focus groups. A well-facilitated focus group can be a breeding ground for innovative ideas, as dialogues unfold naturally and participants build on each other’s responses. The synergistic interaction between group members often leads to the emergence of fresh insights, solutions, or potential features that a company might never have considered, thus enriching the research process and the resultant product or services.
- Validate and Test Concepts: Focus groups are excellent tools for validating or testing new concepts, products, or ideas. Real-time responses, along with non-verbal cues, can be observed, providing a real sense of a proposed idea’s appeal and effectiveness (Nyumba et al., 2018; Queiros, Faria & Almeida, 2017). Participants’ input and feedback can help confirm if the company is on the right track or if adjustments are needed. Therefore, focus groups serve as a valuable checkpoint in product development, minimizing risk and optimizing results.
- Improved Customer Engagement: Focus groups foster a direct connection between a company and its customers. When customers participate in a focus group, they feel heard and valued, which can enhance their loyalty and engagement towards a brand. This two-way communication pathway not only provides critical insights for businesses but also nurtures relationships with customers. Hence, focus groups facilitate better customer engagement, which is key to a company’s long-term success.
- 1. Costs and Logistics: Organizing and conducting focus groups can be expensive and time-consuming. Costs can include not just facilitator fees, but also recruiting participants, providing incentives, securing a venue, and providing refreshments (Cyr, 2019; Krueger & Casey, 2015). The logistics of coordinating schedules can be challenging as well, especially when the focus group includes participants from diverse locations. Therefore, conducting a focus group requires a significant investment of resources.
- 2. Limited Representativeness: Focus groups are typically small, with only about 6-10 participants per group. This limited size means that the participants might not represent the broader population or target market. Consequently, the findings generated may not be generalizable to the whole population, which can limit the usefulness of the data (Guest, Namey & McKenna, 2017). Therefore, caution needs to be exercised when making decisions based on focus group findings.
- 3. Groupthink: Group dynamics within a focus group can sometimes lead to groupthink, whereby individuals in the group onboard the dominant opinion to maintain harmony, rather than expressing their true perspectives (Queiros, Faria & Almeida, 2017). The facilitator’s role and the participants’ comfort level in expressing divergent opinions play a significant part in managing this. However, if unchecked, this groupthink phenomenon can lead to skewed or misleading results, thus jeopardizing the authenticity of the data gathered.
- 4. Subject to Facilitator Bias: The facilitator of the group has a significant role in guiding discussions, which also means that an unintentionally biased facilitator can inadvertently affect the group’s dynamics and responses (Cyr, 2019; Queiros, Faria & Almeida, 2017). Their questions, tone, behavior, or even body language can influence the information that participants share. Thus, facilitator bias can impact the objectivity and reliability of focus group data.
- 5. Interpretation Difficulties: Unlike quantitative research methods, data from focus groups needs extensive and skilled interpretation. Analyzing the non-verbal cues, undertones, and the real intent behind a participant’s response could be complex and require the skills of a trained researcher. Furthermore, cultural nuances might be difficult to understand for multinational focus groups. Therefore, the interpretation process can be challenging, demanding skilled personnel, and careful thought (Cyr, 2019).
Sample Focus Group Questions
If you’re the moderator of a focus group, make sure your focus group questions are open-ended questions, meaning your participants have to answer the questions in full sentences, not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Here are some examples:
- How do you feel about the current design of our product, and what improvements would you suggest?
- What challenges or obstacles do you face when using our service, and how can we address them?
- Describe your ideal experience when shopping for [product category]. What stands out most to you?
- How does our brand compare to other brands you’ve used in the past in terms of quality and value?
- What features or aspects are most important to you when choosing [specific product or service]?
- Can you share a memorable experience, positive or negative, that you’ve had with our company?
- How do you perceive our brand’s image and messaging in the market?
- What factors influence your decision to recommend our product or service to others?
- In what ways do you think our product could evolve to better meet your needs in the future?
- How do you typically use our product, and are there additional functionalities you wish it had?
Tips and Best Practices on Running a Focus Group
- Get Ethics Approval: Before initiating a focus group session, it’s crucial to obtain ethics approval from the appropriate source, typically an ethics committee or review board associated with your organization (Sim & Waterfield, 2019). This is especially important when dealing with sensitive subject matters. The goal is to ensure that the research is conducted ethically, protecting the rights and welfare of participants. This approval process usually involves reviewing the purpose and method of the study, the chosen participant segment, measures taken for data confidentiality, and risks and benefits involved for the participants.
- Choose a Neutral and Comfortable Venue: The physical location of a focus group can greatly impact the success of a session. A neutral venue, not affiliated with any particular participant or interest can aid in reducing bias (Barbour & Morgan, 2017). The setting should also be comfortable, fostering a relaxed environment where participants feel at ease to express thoughts and ideas. Consider factors like room temperature, noise level, seating arrangements, and providing refreshments.
- Appoint an Experienced Moderator: To ensure the discussion remains focused, engaging, and productive, appoint an experienced moderator. The moderator’s role is multi-faceted. They must encourage participation, curb dominance by any one participant, refocus the conversation if it deviates too much, and ask probing questions to explore responses in more depth. A skilled moderator creates an open and inclusive atmosphere where everyone’s opinion is valued (Cyr, 2019).
- Record the Session for Analysis: Recording focus group discussions allows the detailed analysis of data, without relying heavily on memory. Recordings capture nuances in tone, emotion, and speech that might be missed in written notes. These audio or video recordings can later be transcribed and analyzed. Just ensure participants are aware and have consented to the recording of the session before starting, to respect their privacy Sim & Waterfield, 2019).
Conclusion: Why Should Researchers Use Focus Groups?
Generally, focus groups are beneficial when you’re seeking out in-depth insights and thought-processes from customers, clients, or affected stakeholders on a policy, product, or service. This method allows a great deal of depth of insights, but be weary of the limitations. You cannot gather statistically relevant or generalizable data from such groups, so this method may need to be paired with qualitative data such as widescale surveys and market data.
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Cyr, J. (2019). Focus Groups for the Social Science Researcher. Cambridge University Press.
Guest, G., Namey, E., & McKenna, K. (2017). How many focus groups are enough? Building an evidence base for nonprobability sample sizes. Field methods, 29(1), 3-22.
Kamberelis, G., & Dimitriadis, G. (2013). Focus Groups: From Structured Interviews to Collective Conversations. Routledge.
Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2015). Focus group interviewing. Handbook of practical program evaluation, 506-534.
Mishra, L. (2016). Focus group discussion in qualitative research. TechnoLearn: An International Journal of Educational Technology, 6(1), 1-5.
Nyumba, T., Wilson, K., Derrick, C. J., & Mukherjee, N. (2018). The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation. Methods in Ecology and evolution, 9(1), 20-32.
Queirós, A., Faria, D., & Almeida, F. (2017). Strengths and limitations of qualitative and quantitative research methods. European journal of education studies.
Sim, J., & Waterfield, J. (2019). Focus group methodology: some ethical challenges. Quality & quantity, 53(6), 3003-3022.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]