My friends and colleagues who follow me on Facebook or Twitter might have noticed lately that I have been traveling all over the country, moderating focus groups. Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Billings MT, Detroit, and more. Before I ever started working with focus groups, I sort of knew what they were, but they were also a bit of a mystery. I thought it might be interesting for those who have never been a part of a focus group to know how they work.

I am by no means a focus group “expert.” Many people know a great deal more than I do and are more skilled at moderating groups. I learned everything I know from two mentors and friends who are acknowledged experts in this field: John Doble, and Rich Harwood. I have been privileged to work with each of them, and have learned so much.

In this article, I am talking about “official” focus groups — a group of about ten people, recruited according to specific criteria, convened in a setting (usually a focus group facility) where they can be recorded, video taped, and observed. In my experience, lots of organizations convene groups of people to talk about something, and they often call them “focus groups.” I will not quibble with the label, but in this article I am referring to the more formal version. At the right is a photo of a typical focus group facility, taken from the observation room. You are looking through the one way glass into the room where people gather. The moderator (me) sits in the seat closest to the mirror, the one with the black back.

What do you learn from a focus group?

You can learn a great deal about why people think the way they do from focus groups. You can not only learn their opinion, but you can press on various aspects of it to see how they react to trade offs or drawbacks. You can see how their views shift as they interact with other ideas, or think more deeply about initial thoughts. Focus groups are excellent for looking deeper into the why’s of public opinion.

Focus groups are not necessarily good for drawing conclusions about the broader population, however. One group is just ten people, and even if you convene a few, that is still not enough for a representative random sample. So, when reporting on what takes place in a focus group it is important to qualify your statements. You can really only talk about what you heard from the people in the groups.

Often, focus groups are used in conjunction with polls. A focus group can help researchers understand the arguments people use when they think about public issues, and then you can test those arguments in a poll to see how broadly those sentiments are shared. For instance, the other day in a focus group I was leading the conversation turned to parents who take their kids out of the local public schools and instead send them to private schools or to neighboring districts. One participant in the group was very angry at this phenomenon, and felt people were giving up on their communities. This became a bone of contention for a significant part of the session. But there is no way, just from e focus group, how many people in general feel this anger. Is it widespread, or is it more isolated? The only way to know that for sure is to test it in a poll.

How It Works

The focus group facility provides three main things: recruiting, a room, and recording.

Recruiting is perhaps the hardest part when you think about bringing people together. It is an important part of why organizations turn to focus group facilities. They have database of people who have agreed to participate in focus groups, and can also call random households to see if people are interested. You typically have the facility go through a “screener” with potential participants, asking demographic questions and any other things you want to make sure about. For instance, in a recent study we wanted to talk to rural people, and so I asked the facility to include people who live 25 miles or more from a major city. You can put together a group of parents of school age children, video gamers, or avid readers. You do this using the screener.

The room is important, too, but not as critical as you might think. you can hold a focus group conversation anywhere, but if you do it in a facility, it is set up for recording and observation. That is the main thing you get out of going to a facility. The focus group room has a one way mirror at one end, behind which observers can sit. There is usually a video camera in the ceiling, and microphones so there is good audio. I always open the session by making sure everyone knows they are being recorded and observed. They usually already know this, but it is important to be on the up and up. Typically, within five minutes people have forgotten about it.

When it comes to recording, I usually ask for a DVD video of the session and an audio file that I send off to be transcribed. I also take good notes as we go. The notes and the transcription are the most important, but sometimes I will be curious about what someone looked like when they were saying something so I will look at video. Most focus group facilities also have something called Focus Vision, which is a web based video system that allows people from all over to watch the focus group from their computers.

Moderator Tips

Here are some tips and tricks I have learned over the years from moderating and observing lots of focus groups:

Over-recruit. If you want nine or ten people in a focus group (which is a good amount), it is best to recruit more people than you need. I typically ask the facility to recruit twelve people, and usually at least eight show. If everyone shows, I send some home. That is not a problem, as everyone gets paid. Focus group participants are typically paid between $85 and $125, depending the market. (They also get dinner, usually a sandwich.) When deciding who to send home, I usually look for outliers. For example, in a recent group I wanted mostly people with some college or high school degrees. Two people were recruited who had graduate degrees. If they had both showed, I would have kept both, but just one showed. So I sent the other home because having just the one graduate degree person seemed to me a recipe to have someone dominate the conversation with their erudition, or for them to be cowed by being in an unfamiliar group. (I could very well have been wrong about what would really happen, but this was my thinking about what was likely or possible.) the focus group facility handles the pay-and-send part, so the moderator does not have to be the one to do that.

Where people sit sometimes matters. It is a funny thing, but people who sit at the far corners of the table are often quite forceful and sometimes obstreperous. People who sit in the near corners, right next to me, often seem interested in approval and tend to get curious about what I am writing and try to look at my papers. (For this reason, I always write my moderator guide by hand, so it is hard for others to read — I have very poor handwriting.)

It is important to keep a “sympathetic poker face.” by this I mean it is critical not to divulge my own feelings about what we are talking about — but at the same time you can’t be totally blank, as this tends to shut people down. People don’t like to talk to a robot. My main job in the conversation is to make sure people feel safe voicing their opinions and judgments, even if those are views that are in the minority. It is terribly hard to speak up in a group setting if you know (or fear) that everyone disagrees with you. My job is to make people feel like they are with someone who understands. That means that I often will hear and encourage someone to discuss something with which I disagree strongly.

Actively leading the conversation is important. There is always a moderator’s guide, which is usually a list of questions that we need to go through along with some possible probes as follow ups. But it’s not enough to stop there. People will often say one thing in one part of a conversation, and then later say something that is contradictory. If I am doing my job, I will point out such things and see if people can square those contradictions, or whether the issue is just a tension that people have to live with. For instance, if someone says, “we need better roads,” and later someone says “we spend too much on infrastructure we don’t need,” I will call people’s attention to that. I will say “Earlier we talked about the need for better roads, but now we are talking about spending less on infrastructure. Who can help me square these two ideas?”

Process notes right away. If I don’t write up my notes into a little one or two page memo-to-self within 24 hours, the work is lost. I always include quotes in those memos. No matter how good my notes are, I just can’t write down every passing thought. Those ideas are often important, and they dissipate after a day or so. Even if I am not going to share it with anyone, I always write up the notes from each focus group. This also makes it easier to write the overall report when all the groups are done — your main source is your memos, and you scan through the transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Trying to write a report from scratch, just using transcripts, is a nightmare.