What Is a Focus Group Discussion?
A focus group discussion (or FGD) is a qualitative research method in the social sciences, with a particular emphasis and application in the developmental program evaluation sphere.
FGDs are a predetermined semi-structured interview led by a skilled moderator. The moderator asks broad questions to elicit responses and generate discussion among the participants. The moderator’s goal is to generate the maximum amount of discussion and opinions within a given time period.
When Should You Use a Focus Group Discussion?
Focus group discussions should be used when you need to understand an issue at a deeper level than you can access with a survey. They are helpful for adding meaning and understanding to existing knowledge, or getting at the “why” and “how” of a topic.
A survey would be a good way to learn that 54% of the population prefers Program A. However, a FGD is a good way to learn why 54% of the population prefers Program A.
In addition, FGDs are a good way to verify that people’s stated preferences are the same as their actual preferences. For example, 54% of surveyed people might say that they prefer Program A. However, talking to the group in more detail might reveal that their actual preference is Program B. (Many people answer surveys with what they think the questioner wants to hear, rather than their actual opinions!)
Creating the Questionnaire
It is important to take time to carefully plan your questions. Poorly-worded, biased, or awkward questions can derail a FGD and spoil the quality of your data.
- Keep the number of questions reasonable (under 10, if possible). This prevents the participants from getting confused or worn out by a long discussion.
- Keep the questions simple and short. FGD participants won’t get the chance to see the questions like in a survey.
- Ensure that the wording on questions is clear. Otherwise, participants will end up discussing the question itself, rather than what the question was trying to ask.
- Be careful that questions about sensitive issues or topics are asked carefully. Otherwise, the FGD will stop just because people are too embarrassed to answer.
- Make sure that questions are worded in a way that cannot be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. Using words like “Why” and “How” will help elicit better responses from participants.
There should be three types of questions in a focus group discussion:
- Probe questions: these introduce participants to the discussion topic and make them feel more comfortable sharing their opinion with the group
- Follow-up questions: delve further into the discussion topic and the participants’ opinions
- Exit question: check to ensure that you didn’t miss anything
Say that you run two education programs, and you’d like to know why Program A sees better attendance than Program B. You could use the following questions to explore this issue:
- How familiar are you with our programs?
- How often do you attend our programs?
- What is your favorite program?
- What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of Program A?
- What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of Program B?
- What influences whether you attend a program?
- What influences whether your friends attend a program?
- If we were to close a program, which one should we close and why?
- Is there anything else you’d like to say about our programs?
Length of the Focus Group Discussion
An FGD should be between 60 and 90 minutes.
If the FGD is shorter than 60 minutes, it is often difficult to fully explore the discussion topic. If the FGD is longer than 90 minutes, the discussion can become unproductive (as participants get weary) and the discussion can start to impose on participants’ time.
Selecting the Participants
Focus group discussions involve two to eight people on average. Greater than eight participants becomes crowd for a FGD and is more suited for an advisory board.
Creating homogeneity in the FGD group can help participants feel more comfortable expressing their opinions.
Consider the following when you are choosing your participants:
- Gender: Will men and women feel comfortable discussing this topic in a mixed-gender group? For example, women might feel uncomfortable discussing maternal health if men are in the group.
- Age: Will age affect the way that people react to this topic? For example, a young person might feel uncomfortable talking about his drinking habits if older people from his community are in the room.
- Hierarchy: Will people of different hierarchical positions be able to discuss this topic equally? For example, a student might feel uncomfortable discussing her teachers if the school principal is in the FGD.
Certain criteria should be set up front and used to screen potential FGD participants.
Preparing for the Focus Group Discussion
Make sure the participants have provided informed consent verbally or ideally on a written form, in line with research ethics best practices.
- Be sure to make the location and time of the FGD are clear to all participants.
- If you anticipate some participants not showing up, invite 10-20% extra participants. However, be careful to not create too large of a group.
- Be sure that the FGD is in a public place that is convenient for participants. Consider the location’s proximity to public transportation. If the FGD must happen out in the field, make it as comfortable and convenient for participants as possible.
- Make sure that the setting does not bias the information being collected.
- If it is important to collect demographic data from participants (like age, gender, caste, etc), design a short form that takes no more than 2 or 3 minutes to complete. The form can be administered before the focus group starts.
Moderator Techniques for Focus Group Discussions
As a moderator, it is important to ensure that all participants are comfortable and engaged with the discussion, and that their opinions are being heard. The following techniques are helpful:
- Remain neutral to ensure that everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinion. No nodding or shaking your head, raising eyebrows, agreeing or disagreeing with comments, or praising or denigrating participants.
- Elicit further information from shy participants with comments like “Can you tell me more about that?”, “Help me understand what you mean”, or “Can you give an example?”
- Deal with dominant participants by acknowledging their opinion and soliciting other opinions. Sentences like “Thank you. What do other people think?” can be helpful.
- Paraphrase or summarize long, unclear comments by participants. This shows participants that the moderator is actively listening, and it helps the moderator to ensure he or she has understood the participant’s statement.
- Act spontaneously if needed. If the conversation goes in an unexpected, but productive direction, go with it and ask questions that were not on the initial questionnaire. Probe deeper into new topics and ideas, as long as the information being gained is valuable.
Other Things to Note
- Use a good audio or video recorder. Your smart phone audio recorder works well if the phone has good battery life.
- Transcribe the FGD as soon as the conversation is completed, so the nuances of the dialogue are not lost in the annals of time.
- It’s best to take notes in the midst of the dialogue and after the episode with the participants. Reflective notes make for robust qualitative data.
- Ideally pay a participation fee to the FGD participants, as they might skip productive work to participate in the study. Make arrangements for refreshments too.
Limitations of Focus Group Discussions
It is important to realize that there are several limitations to FGDs. First, since FGD data is qualitative, it cannot necessarily be generalizable to the population. This is because qualitative data is often context specific.
Second, facilitators must ensure that their bias is not evident. Otherwise, it will veer the trajectory of the conversation. They must be also be active in ensuring that active participants do not overpower subdued participants during the discussion.
Note: This article was originally published on 15 September 2015, then refreshed and updated on 11 September 2017.