Evaluate programs

Conducting focus groups


According to Goldenkoff (2004), "The key to focus groups is participant chemistry." To encourage participation and openness, select participants with common concerns or backgrounds who don't know each other. The American Statistical Association (1997) cautions, "Never put people together who are in the same chain of command," so don't include a professor and her student or an employee and his boss in the same group. It's not necessary to randomly select participants because results from a focus group are not meant to generalize to a larger population. The goal is to recruit enough participants to get a full range of opinion, but not so many as to discourage participation.

When recruiting participants, Goldenkoff (2004) advises that you:

If possible, follow-up with an e-mail or note that restates the information given during the initial contact, provides directions to the focus group site, and identifies a contact person if they need to cancel or have questions. Give participants a reminder call or e-mail a day before. Expect that some people will change their mind or not show up, so invite more than your target number. Some incentive for attending is usually provided, such as food, a small amount of money, or gift certificates.


The setting should be convenient, comfortable, and relaxing. Rooms with one-way mirrors, conference tables, and microphones hanging from the ceiling may make participants feel like they are performing, so make the setting informal, because people are more likely to open up if they feel at home. If business operations are being discussed, a conference room may be fine, but for more personal topics, living room-style seating is better. Serving light snacks and beverages can create a friendly atmosphere. If you are using food as an incentive, however, serve it before or after the session, so it doesn't distract participants from the discussion.

Dressing appropriately for the setting will improve rapport. It's acceptable to wear blue jeans for a student focus group but better to wear more professional attire among program managers or administrators.


An effective moderator keeps the discussion focused without discouraging the sharing of ideas and gets all members to contribute while making sure that one or two members don't dominate. Moderators should develop qualities outlined by Kvale (1996) and Fern (2001):

Assistant moderator

An assistant moderator usually does not ask questions but takes care of administrative tasks like distributing nametags and refreshments, seating participants, recording the session, and taking notes, enabling the moderator to stay neutral and focus on responses

Focus group process

The focus group discussion begins with an introduction that explains the purpose, ground rules, and duration (usually between 45 and 90 minutes) and conveys the expectation that everyone will contribute, all contributions will be valued and remain confidential, and the session will be recorded. Recording increases the accuracy of your conclusions, so test your recording equipment immediately before each focus group.

Inform participants of any exceptions to confidentiality. For example, if a participant discloses details of child abuse or threats to his or her safety, you may be required by law to report this. You may need to get approval for the study from the university's Institutional Review Board and obtain an informed consent from participants, which explains potential risks or benefits of their participation. Anticipate possible emotional reactions from participants and how you will handle them.

After the introduction, the moderator typically has group members introduce themselves or uses an icebreaking exercise to get them involved. To preserve confidentiality and commonality, the moderator should ask members to introduce themselves by first name only and should avoid topics that emphasize differences in status that might threaten cohesion. For groups that focus on sensitive issues such as race or gender, the moderator's demographic background should match that of participants.

Skilled moderators use reinforcers and probes. Reinforcers communicate interest in what members share but don't suggest what is expected or acceptable. Use reinforcers like, "I see," or "Let me write that down," but avoid comments like, "Excellent response," or nodding your head after some responses but not others. Try to smile and appear open and friendly.

Be prepared to use probes such as, "Could you tell me some more about that?" "What do you mean by that?" or "Anything else?" Allow participants time to respond, using silence in moderation to encourage someone to expand on an answer. Nonverbal behaviors will help you judge whether a participant is uncomfortable or just thinking about an answer. When a participant rambles or does not state a clear point of view, ask an interpretive question, such as, "Do you mean that your priorities have shifted from developing programs to building support for programs?"

At the end of the discussion, summarize important points to ensure you have made the correct interpretation and to allow participants to elaborate. Always thank respondents for their participation and ask them if they have any questions for you.

Immediately after the focus group, the moderator (and, if present, the assistant moderator) should draft a summary (Krueger, 1988) that includes findings and interpretations on key issues, themes and subthemes, how the moderators thought the group went, impressions of the setting, any changes to the question sequence, and impressions of participant enthusiasm and body language. Recording this information will help you remember details and interpret what was said.

Page last updated: Sep 21 2011
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