Focus Groups

Focus groups are one of the fundamental qualitative data-collection tools used in industrial and organizational psychology. According to R. A. Krueger (1994), a focus group is a carefully planned discussion that is designed to obtain perceptions about a defined area of interest in a permissive and nonthreatening environment. It can be used to explore a multitude of issues, and it is a very popular technique in the worlds of both market research and psychology. Although there is much to be said about focus groups, given their widespread use, three topics will be emphasize here: (a) focus group basics, (b) other important factors, and (c) applications of focus groups.

Focus Group Basics

When conducting a focus group, four key factors must be considered: (a) the process, (b) the content, (c) group composition, and (d) data analysis.

With respect to process, a focus group ideally should consist of 10 to 12 people, although it certainly can be smaller or much larger. As Janine Waclawski and Steven Rogelberg (2002) note, it is typically led by a facilitator who asks the research questions and is assisted by a scribe who takes notes. It is vital that the focus group be led by both a facilitator and a scribe; one person alone cannot sufficiently manage the group, ask questions, probe for additional information, and capture session notes in real time. Although it is often tempting to consider streamlining the process to have one person performing both roles, this is not advisable under any circumstances. The duration of the focus group generally runs from one to two hours. In terms of location, a place where people feel that they can talk freely is best. This will lead to a better quality of data. For the most part, an offsite conference room is preferred. This typically engenders an environment of openness and fosters candid communication. These factors are critical to the success of a focus group.

According to some, including Krueger, the focus group can be as structured or unstructured as the facilitator desires. However, Waclawski and Rogelberg indicate that this is not considered best practice. Focus groups tend to run most smoothly and produce higher-quality data when the content of study is determined well in advance of the session. To accomplish this, most facilitators develop and use what is known as a discussion guide. This is a document that contains a scripted introduction to the session, the specific research questions to be posed to the group, and the session close. The introduction is important because it sets the tone and ground rules for the focus group. It typically contains a welcome statement; an introduction to the topic of the focus group; an introduction to the facilitator, scribe, and participants; and rules regarding the confidentiality of the data and the ultimate use of the results. The majority of the discussion guide focuses on the questions for the meeting and appropriate probes for follow-up.

No matter how well scripted the questions are, there is always some degree of fluidity and unexpectedness that occurs during the focus groups. This is normal and part of what makes this method of data collection so rich. The session close typically consists of a reiteration of confidentiality and the purposes for which the data will be used, as well as contact information for the facilitator.

Group composition is very important, and there are two options to consider: whether to select homogeneous (similar) or heterogeneous (mixed) participants. Homogeneous groups consist of participants who are similar on a set of dimensions that are viewed as critical to the results of the focus group. These are factors such as age, gender, education level, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or geographic location. Conversely, heterogeneous groups consist of a mixture of participants who vary on these key dimensions. Although there has been considerable debate over the years as to which approach is better, current thinking supports the notion that homogeneous groups are preferable, as noted by Waclawski and Rogelberg. Quite simply, groups with similar participants yield more focused results, which is, after all, the purpose of the focus group. Furthermore, when a study is carefully constructed, a combination of different homogeneous groups will produce a heterogeneous mixture of participants.

The most common approach to analyzing focus group data is content coding. This consists of transcribing all of the notes from the focus group session, identifying major themes or content areas that are present in the data, and counting the frequency of responses for each theme (see Rebecca Morris’s 1994 piece, cited in Further Reading, for an in-depth discussion of this process).

Other Important Factors to Consider

On the surface, the conduct of the focus group and the analysis of focus group data may seem simple in comparison to other methods of research (i.e., those of a more quantitative nature). However, because focus groups are qualitative and somewhat subjective in nature, there are many nuances involved in mastering this method of inquiry that can significantly influence the outcomes. In particular, the level of skill of the facilitator is crucial. An untrained or poorly trained facilitator will introduce experimenter bias, at best, and at worst, render the research completely invalid. For example, by directing the responses of the participants (as opposed to a more objective approach of teasing out responses), failing to solicit input from more introverted participants (allowing some strong members of the group to dominate), or allowing the group to go off on unproductive tangents, a poor facilitator can greatly affect both the session and the resulting data.

Maintaining consistent conditions across focus groups is also important to minimize unwanted error resulting from the effects of differing contexts. Using the same facilitator (or checking for interrater reliability when this is not feasible), the same discussion guide, and the same meeting setup is important to ensure similar experiences across focus groups. In the end, the details, no matter how small, are very important.

Applications of Focus Groups

Focus groups have many applications in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. They can be used either as a stand-alone research method or as an add-on to other methods. Focus groups are often used alone when the researcher wants to study a topic in depth with a group of individuals who can provide significant insight beyond what a traditional survey offers. They are often used to collect data on participant attitudes or opinions about a particular topic or a set of related topics. For example, an organization might conduct a focus group to assess its employees’ level of satisfaction with its current benefits program, to find out whether employees trust senior management, or even to look at employees’ attitudes and opinions about the recognition they receive for doing their jobs.

At other times, focus groups are used in conjunction with surveys (typically after the fact) to explore issues that were unearthed by the survey but not explained in sufficient detail to satisfy the researcher or to answer the research question at hand. Unlike a survey, the focus group enables an open dialogue between the researcher and participants, allowing important issues to be explored in depth. In this way, focus groups can be very useful, especially if the survey does not contain any write-in or open-ended questions or if the results of the survey are unclear in some regard.

All in all, whether they are used alone or in conjunction with other research methods, focus groups are an extremely important applied research tool.

References:

  1. Krueger, R. A. (1994). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Morris, R. (1994). Computerized content analysis in management research: A demonstration of advantages and limitations. Journal of Management, 20, 903-931.
  3. Waclawski, J., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2002). Interviews and focus groups: Quintessential organization development techniques. In J. Waclawski & A. H. Church (Eds.), Organization development: A data-driven approach to organizational change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.