Conducting A Focus Group

What are Focus Groups? And why we use them?


Most people love to be asked their opinion and they're generally not shy about voicing it.


A focus group is basically a way to reach out to your potential users for feedback and comment. Organizations generally use focus groups in planning, marketing, or evaluation, either to improve some specific product or service or, more globally, during the development of strategic plans or mission statements.


In the context of CIMEL project, focus groups help evaluate usability of the interface and representative content.  Focus groups answer questions that the development cannot resolve and can lead to new ideas.


Specifically, the a focus group session concentrates on:

• Gathering opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about issues of interest to your organization
• Testing your assumptions
• Encouraging discussion about a particular topic
• Building excitement from spontaneous combination of participants' comments
• Providing an opportunity to learn more about a topic or issue.

We divide the activity of conducting a focus group into ‘three main phases’:


Before The Focus Group:

  1. Define the purpose, i.e. objectives of the focus group

This has to be clear and specific. The more defined the objective the easier the rest of the process.


  1. Establish a timeline

A focus group cannot be developed overnight. The planning has to start several weeks ahead of the actual session; experts say 6 to 8 weeks realistically. Make sure you have enough take time to identify the participants, develop and test the questions, locate a site, invite and follow up with participants, and gather the materials for the sessions.

3.      Identify the participants

·        Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite.

·        Develop a list of key attributes to seek in participants based on the purpose of the focus group.

·        Using the list of attributes, brainstorm about possible participants.

·        Secure names and contact information, finalize the list, and send invitations.

Focus groups should consist of six to twelve participants.  Fewer than six participants tends to limit the conversation, because there is not enough diversity to spark energy and creativity.  A group larger than twelve gets to be unwieldy, and voices get lost.  However, you should invite more, allowing for no-shows. 

4. Generate the questions

Because a focus group will last for little more than one or two hours, you will only have time for four to seven questions. You may to include one or two introductory or warm-up questions and then get to the more serious questions that get at the heart of the purpose. 

To be effective, focus group questions should be open-ended and move from the general to the specific.  E.g., after asking the question, “What do you like about the user interface?” you might ask, “If you could build a new user interface from scratch, what would you put in to make a better one?” or “What would make the user interface more appealing to your peers?” or even more specific, “Do you have any suggestions about what the personae (faces)—what they should look like or what they should do?”

·        Once you have a list of questions, look at your purpose statement again.

·        Keep questions that are really important and that qualify for your purpose. Eliminate as many questions as possible.

·        Rewrite the questions with good editing.

·        Order the questions that will be comfortable for the participants, i.e. moving from general to specific.

5.      Develop a script 

Generating questions is a prelude to developing a more detailed script for your focus group.

Plan on a one - to two -hour time frame. A minimum of one hour is recommended because the process requires some time for opening and closing remarks as well as at least one or two questions. Be cautious not to exceed two hours.

There are three parts to a focus group script:

1.      The opening is the time for the facilitator to welcome the group, introduce the purpose and context of the focus group, explain what a focus group is and how it will flow, and make the introductions.

2.      The question section is where you ask the questions that you designed and tested in Step 4.

3.      The closing section wraps up the focus group. This includes thanking the participants, giving them an opportunity and avenue for further input, telling them how the data will be used, and explaining when the larger process will be completed. 

6.      Select a facilitator

A focus group facilitator should be able to deal tactfully with outspoken group members, keep the discussion on track, and make sure every participant is heard.

The facilitator should be knowledgeable about the project.  He or she can be a staff member, volunteer, or member of a committee or task force.

Be wary of anything about the facilitator (or facilitators) that might make participants uncomfortable. For example, you may not want the organization's executive director to facilitate a staff focus group about a new performance appraisal system.

7.      Choose the location

You Need a setting which can accommodate the participants and where they would feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

When choosing a location, ask these questions: 

• What message does the setting send? (Is it corporate, upscale, cozy, informal, sterile, inviting?)
• Does the setting encourage conversation?
• How will the setting affect the information gathered? Will the setting bias the information offered?
• Can it comfortably accommodate nine to fifteen people (six to twelve participants plus facilitators), where all can view each other?
• Is it easily accessible? (Consider access for people with disabilities, safety, transportation, parking, etc.)

Once decided, reserve the location if necessary.

Example: Put a link or part of the CIMEL focus group script conducted in Spring 02.

Conduct The Focus Group:

It’s time to actually conduct the session!

The materials you might need for the session are:

Notepads and pencils
Computer with presentation
Flip chart or easel paper

Focus group script
List of participants
Masking tape
Name tags
Watch or clock

·        The facilitator should arrive before the participants, set out the refreshments, and arrange the room so all participants can view one another -- U-shaped seating or all at one table is best.

·        As participants arrive, the facilitator should set the tone for a comfortable, enjoyable discussion by welcoming them just as would any gracious host.

·        Introduce yourself and the co-facilitator, if used.

·        Explain the means to record the session.  Make sure you record the session!

·        Carry out the focus group as per the plan and script.

·        The facilitator should have some room for spontaneity, i.e., asking spontaneous questions that arise from the discussion, probing deeper into a topic.

Attention to the following items will help ensure success:

1. Set the tone; participants should have fun and feel good about the session.
2. Make sure every participant is heard; draw out quieter group members.
3. Get full answers (not just "we need more money" but "we need more money to hire a receptionist to answer phones").
4. Monitor time closely; don’t exceed time limits.
5. Keep the discussion on track; try to answer all or most of the questions.
6. Head off exchanges of opinion about individual items.

After the Focus Group:

Make any notes on your written notes, e.g., to clarify any scratching, ensure pages are numbered, fill out any notes that don't make senses, etc.

Interpret and Report the Results:

There are three steps to creating a report on your focus group:

1. Summarize each meeting.  The facilitator should review the session with another person to capture fresh impressions.

Finally, transcribe notes that were taken soon after the session is over and write a summary of the focus group.

The quick turnaround time on the transcription helps avoid memory lapses. It's easiest for the facilitator or recorder to remember what was meant by a particular acronym or shorthand immediately following the session than it is a month later.

2.  Analyze the summaries.  Start by reading all the focus group summaries in one sitting.  Look for trends (comments that seem to appear repeatedly in the data) and surprises (unexpected comments that are worth noting).  Keep in mind that context and tone are just as important as the reiteration of particular words.  If a comment (or a number of comments) seemed to be phrased negatively, elicited emotional responses, or triggered many other comments, that would be worth noting in the analysis.

3.  Write the report.  The final report can take many different shapes, but it should include all information about the background and purpose of the focus group, details of the sessions, results, and conclusions.  One focus group report developed for the CIMEL project is at

You may also want to use web-based surveys as a way to gather information from users; this has the advantage of providing information that is more quantifiable, but has the disadvantage of generating less discussion.  An example of a survey is available at and the results are dynamically generated at  CIMEL researchers can generate comparable surveys and results easily.  The results of surveys can be combined with a focus group report, or described separately.

Now this report now ready for ‘translation into action’. Note that the researchers might be different from the people who organized the focus group, but they need to be aware of the focus group report in order for implementation of major issues that have been brought to attention by the group.

Example: Put a sample report link or part of it here.

Here are some suggestions for translating the results into action:

• Schedule a meeting to review the summaries and discuss their implications.
• Put the focus group information in context. Refer to your purpose statement and analyze the answers or insights the focus groups gave you. Compare, contrast, and combine the focus group information with information gathered from other sources such as surveys, interviews, or secondary research sources.
• Highlight the main themes, issues, problems, or questions that arose in the focus groups. Discuss and record how you will address these.
• If there is a lot of information, prioritize it. Then decide what actions need to be taken with regard to the priority items.


Judith Sharken Simon, How To Conduct A Focus Group  (primary)

Carter McNamara, Basics of Conducting Focus Groups

The Small Schools Project, Conducting Focus Groups