METHOD OVERVIEW

Focus groups are semi-structured discussions with a small group of persons (usually 6-12 people) sharing a common feature (e.g., women of reproductive age, shareholders in an irrigation system, users of a certain service, etc.).  A small list of open-ended topics, posed as questions or participatory tasks, is used to focus the discussion. (CARE 1998)

Focus groups have been increasingly used in participatory evaluations and research to identify and describe insider perceptions, attitudes, and felt needs on a defined topic.  Focus group methods are also used with PRA tools to discuss and record the results.  (CARE 1998)

Strengths of Focus Groups: (CARE 1998)

  • Group interaction enriches the quality and quantity of information provided
  • Focus group discussions are quite good at disclosing the range and nature of problems, as well as eliciting preliminary ideas about solutions.

Weaknesses of Focus Groups: (CARE 1998)

  • Practice and experience in qualitative evaluation and research procedures are needed, especially thorough note-taking and sensitive facilitation.
  • Large amounts of information are easily obtained, necessitating skills in extracting and summarizing for the analysis

HOW TO CONDUCT FOCUS GROUPS

Information in this section has been excerpted entirely from: CARE & Barton, Tom (1998). Program Impact Evaluation Process, Module 2: M&E Toolbox. CARE Uganda. Accessible here.

Steps to Conduct Effective Focus Groups: 

  • Design a discussion topic guide; i.e., an interview framework comprised of open-ended questions arranged in a logical and natural sequence.  The questions should not be able to be answered simply with a yes/no or a single number; instead, they should stimulate discussion and bring out varied points of view.
  • Decide on the number of focus groups – generally at least two for each ‘type’ of respondent.  However, only the important characteristics should be considered to keep the total number of groups to a minimum.  Keeping groups in the size of 6-12 persons helps to ensure that everyone can participate and have their ideas expressed.
  • Determine how the respondents will be recruited.  Specific criteria for recruitment should be decided beforehand, along with the best strategy for finding such persons.  Be ready to hold additional sessions if the discussion does not succeed  (e.g., people don’t show up, the facilitator can’t keep the discussion on course, etc.)  Focus groups should usually be composed of people who do not have strong status differences (age, gender, class, education, language, etc.) – this helps to create a comfortable environment for discussion.
  • Select appropriate facilitators; which may involve matching by age, gender, or language ability (focus groups are best done in the local vernacular)
  • The interviewer acts as a group facilitator, and a second person acts as a reporter (note-taker).  The reporter needs to write rapidly to capture people’s expressions as exactly as possible.  It may be useful to tape record the session, but only if the community and the group give permission.
  • Conduct practice (pretest) focus groups with members of a similar nearby community; in small communities, this helps prevent people coming with pre-set answers.
  • Before starting, explain the purpose of the session to the group.  Before changing to a new topic, be sure each person has had at least one opportunity to provide his/her ideas.  Over-talkative participants need to be controlled and silent ones stimulated.  Focus groups rely on discussion and there should be no pressure to have the group reach a consensus.
  • As with semi-structured interviews, the facilitator is free to use a variety of probing questions to help extract ideas and to keep the talk focused.  Limit the length of the session to about an hour (including introduction).
  • Notes and recordings of interviews should be carefully reviewed immediately after the session  (and tape recordings transcribed as soon as possible).
  • Analysis consists of extracting key statements from the discussion.  These statements should be reported exactly as phrased by the participants.

Tasks for Facilitators 

  1. The facilitator uses the discussion guide to keep the session on track.
  2. Introduce discussion topics with a planned introduction. The facilitator does not need to be an expert on the topics, but should be familiar enough with them to pose relevant questions.  Be lively and encouraging; also keep a sense of humor.
  3. React neutrally; remember there is no right or wrong answer.  Gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication such as nods or head shakes should not suggest agreement or disagreement with the participant’s comments.  Avoid reacting to the discussion or expressing personal opinions that could influence the participants.
  4. Observe the participants and be conscious of their involvement and reactions.  Encourage all to participate and do not allow a few individuals to dominate the discussion.
  5. Listen carefully to move the discussion logically from point to point and to relate participants’ comments to the next question.  (e.g., ‘Your point about the problem of teenage pregnancies reminds me I wanted to ask you what sources of community support are there for unmarried girls who do get pregnant, especially when they have to drop out of school?)
  6. Guide the meeting into a discussion among equals, rather than a question and answer session.  In the best sessions, the participants communicate among themselves and become less aware of the facilitator.
  7. Build rapport with the participants and gain their confidence and trust in order to probe their responses and comments more deeply.
  8. Be flexible and open to suggestions, changes, interruptions, and lack of participation.
  9. Be subtle and not pushy about watching the time and moving from one topic to the next; do not appear to be ‘watching the clock’.
  10. Be aware of your tone of voice; an overly assertive, aggressive or imperative tone can intimidate the participants, particularly when asking probing questions.  It might seem that the participant is being attacked if the tone of voice sounds unfriendly.
  11. Review the meeting very promptly afterwards with the recorder (within 24 hours and before doing any other such groups).

Tasks for Notetaker/Recorder

  1. The notetaker/recorder is present primarily to observe and take notes on the discussion.
  2. The notes should include full labeling for the session:
    • Date, and time it began and ended,
    • Name of the community and a brief statement about any characteristics of it that might have a bearing on the relevant activities of the participants.
    • Venue, including any comments on how the setting could affect the participants (e.g., large enough, private enough, etc.).
    • Number of participants and some descriptive data on them, such as sex (gender), approximate age, and any other kinds of information relevant to the study (e.g., adolescent boys attending secondary school).
  1. Pay attention to the vocabulary of the participants.  If the session is being recorded, keep notes in English for the most rapid sharing with the evaluation or research team.  The recorder should make an effort to note the participants’ own words in the local language if the session is not being tape- recorded.  In this case, arrange for translation of the notes and the tape as soon as possible.
  2. Besides recording as exactly as possible what people are saying (direct or verbatim quotes), the recorder should make brief notes about the flow of the meeting.  Record personal observations and impressions in parentheses ( ) or brackets [ ].  These observational notes might include comments about the level of participation, whether one or more are dominating the conversation, fatigue, anxiety, etc.
  3. Pay attention to the interruptions and distractions.  Note what makes people laugh, what makes them reluctant to answer, and how the discussion is concluded.
  4. Make note of whether there seems to be a consensus or majority opinion on any topic, but do not force people’s answers into any certain mould.
  5. In general, the facilitator should be the one to talk, and the recorder should concentrate on observing and recording.  However, if necessary the recorder could interrupt for clarification, to make suggestions about how to make the discussion more meaningful, or to help get things back on track if the facilitator seems to have lost control of the meeting.
  6. If the session is tape recorded, the recorder is the person to operate the tape.  While this is a bit of chore to keep track that the machine is operating properly, the resulting tape will help to amplify the written notes taken during the session.  Just because there is a machine, however, do not count on the tape being audible – the notetaker must still take notes.
  7. Review the meeting very promptly afterwards with the facilitator (within 24 hours and before doing any other such groups).  Expand and complete the notes and then promptly pass them on to the evaluation or research team.

USE OF FOCUS GROUPS BY ORGANIZATIONS

Part 1: Documents Describing the Method

CARE. Barton, Tom (1998). Program Impact Evaluation Process, Module 2: M&E Toolbox. CARE Uganda. Accessible here.

IFRCHandbook for Monitoring & Evaluation, 1st Edition. International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. October 2002. Accessible here.

IFRCHow to conduct a food security assessment: A step-by-step guide for National Societies in Africa. 2nd Edition. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. 2006. Accessible here.

STC. Adolescent Sexual & Reproductive Health: A Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings. Save the Children & UNFPA. Westport, CT. September 2009. Accessible here.

UNHCR. Handbook for Emergencies, Third Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Emergency Preparedness and Response Section. Geneva, Switzerland. February 2007. Accessible here.

UNHCR. The UNHCR Tool for Participatory Assessment in Emergency Operations, First Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. May 2006. Accessible here.

UNHCR. Handbook for Planning and Implementing Development Assistance for Refugees (DAR) Programmes. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. January 2005. Accessible here.

Part 2: Documents Utilizing the Method

CRS. Walters, E. & Brick, D. A Rapid Seed Assessment in the Southern Department of Haiti: An examination of the impact of the January 12 earthquake on seed systems. Catholic Relief Services. March 10, 2010. Accessible here. (includes a focus group guide)

CRS. Livelihoods in Malawi: A livelihoods rapid assessment using the Integral Human Development conceptual framework. Catholic Relief Services. Baltimore, MD. 2010. Accessible here.

STC. George, A. & Menotti, E. Delivering Community-Based Treatment for Childhood Pneumonia and Diarrhea: a Mid-Term Assessment of Hasta el Ultimo Rincón, a Community Case Management Project of Save the Children in Nicaragua. Save the Children. January 13, 2009. Accessible here.

UNHCR. An independent evaluation of UNHCR’s Community Based Reintegration Programme in Southern Sudan. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. May 2011. Accessible here.

ADDITIONAL NOTES & RESOURCES

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Evaluation Research Team. Evaluation Brief No. 13: Data Collection Methods for Program Evaluation: Focus Groups. July 1998. Accessible here.

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