[A focus group discussion session is] a discussion in which a small number (usually six to 12) of respondents, under the guidance of a moderator, talk about topics that are believed to be of special importance to the investigation.
(Folch-Lyon & Trost 1981, p.444)

A Focus Group Discussion (FGD) is a qualitative research technique used to gain insight into a group’s thoughts, opinions, and ideas about a topic of the researcher’s interest.

When do researchers use FGDs?

  • when the subject being researched is complex
  • when interactions between participants are considered insightful
  • when participants feel more comfortable discussing a topic in a group setting

FGDs also help researchers increase their knowledge on a subject and enable them to understand misleading results, clarify statistical data, and/or strengthen the validity of their research.

For example, a researcher who conducted a survey about the effect of housing insecurity on mental health finds that for most respondents increasing rent prices led to worse mental health outcomes. To better understand why this is, the researcher holds a FGD asking participants to explain their experiences with rent increase and why they think that such experiences can lead to poor mental health and wellbeing.

Cycle diagram showing how a focus group works: Determine the topic and goals of the focus group Identify potential participants, Prepare a guide (the moderator guide or discussion guide) that outlines the focus group questions, Choose a location for the focus group, Recruit 6-12 participants (who receive an incentive), Conduct a 90-120 minute session lead by a trained moderator, Analyze the session and present a thorough written and/or oral report.

Image source: (QuestionPro, 2022)

FGDs bring together participants from a specific target group whose opinions and ideas are crucial to the investigation. To facilitate conversation among them and capture their insights, focus groups can involve the following roles:

  • Moderator: the person who leads the focus group by prompting participants with questions on the topic of interest
  • Note taker: the person who assists the facilitator by recording the contributions of participants
  • Observer: the person who captures FGD group dynamics

Although FGDs are guided by a moderator, participants are encouraged to engage openly in a group discussion and engage with each other’s contributions. On the one hand, this might mean the researcher has less control over the data produced. On the other hand, the group dynamic allows them to capture the interaction between participants and the spectrum of attitudes and ideas towards the topic of interest. In other words, FGDs provide ‘a rich and detailed set of data about perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and impressions of people in their own words’ (Stewart et al. 2007, p 163).

(Authors: Hanna Kienzler & Bwalya Mulenga)

What is it?

Videos:

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How focus groups can help your research: Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science (2016)

This short Youtube video offers an introduction to focus group discussions. The video describes what focus group discussions are, when it is most appropriate to use them and how to make sure your focus group discussions are successful.

(Academic reference: Mod.U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science. (2016, October 19). How focus groups can help your research: Qualitative research methods [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng8SnDIre4)

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Using focus groups in research by University of Derby (2014)

This short Youtube video offers an overview of focus group discussions. The video touches on how researchers in different disciplines have used focus group discussions to explore their topic of interest and answer their research questions.

(Academic reference: University of Derby. (2014, November 4). Using focus groups in research [Video]. YouTube. : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLw0YXcseG0)

Reports:

Focus groups by Anita Gibbs (1997)

This article outlines important considerations you should be aware of before using focus group discussions. The article covers potential benefits and limitations to using focus group discussions in your research.

(Academic reference: Gibbs, A. (1997). Focus groups. Social Research Update, 1(19), pp 1-8. Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/her-macdonaldsbs2000fall2015b/files/2011/06/Focus-Groups_Anita-Gibbs.pdf)

Articles:

Focus groups by Richard Powell and Helen Single (1996)

This article introduces focus group discussions and highlights why they can be useful. The article compares focus group discussions to other research methods to help you decide on the most appropriate methodology.

(Academic reference: Powell, R. & Single, H. (1996). Focus groups. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 8(5), pp 499-504. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/8.5.499)

Books:

Qualitative research methods (5th ed.) by Pranee Liamputtong (2013)

In Chapter 4 “Focus Groups”, the author provides an introduction to focus group discussions with a focus on planning, data collection and interpretation.

(Academic reference: Liamputtong, P. (2013). Qualitative research methods (5th ed, Chapter 4). Oxford University Press.)

How is it done?

Videos:

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Conducting virtual focus groups by Shine Lab (2021)

This YouTube video explains how to hold a successful focus group discussion virtually. The video gives a brief overview of focus groups, explains how to conduct them, and offers advice for holding these discussions in a virtual space.

(Academic reference: Shine Lab (2021, February 20). Conducting virtual focus groups [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_iyUAy0ZhQ)

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Preparing for focus groups: Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science (2016)

This short Youtube video explores the planning involved in conducting a focus group discussion. The video touches on how to navigate the group dynamic, how to be a good moderator, and more generally, how to get the most out of your focus group discussion.

(Academic reference: Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science. (2016, October 19). Preparing for focus groups: Qualitative research methods [Video].YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSwTvkTsOvI)

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Lecture on focus groups in research by Graham Gibbs (2017)

This hour-long lecture by a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield offers a more detailed look at the practical issues associated with conducting focus group research. It covers uses of focus groups, how they are facilitated, some of their limitations and the potential for internet-based focus groups.

(Academic reference: Gibbs, G.R. (2017, July 26). Lecture on focus groups in research [Video]. YouTube. Https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZULyGYd64E)

Manuals & Guides:

A manual for the use of focus groups by Susan Dawson, Lenore Manderson and Veronical L. Tallo (1993)

This manual explains what you should consider before, during and after holding a focus group discussion. The manual looks at: how to design your study, how to select participants, how to be a good moderator, how to debrief participants after the discussion, and more.

(Academic reference: Dawson, S., Manderson, L., & Tallo, V. L. (1993). A manual for the use of focus groups. Boston: International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries. Https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/41795/0963552228.pdf)

Focus groups by University College London (n.d.)

This manual offers a list of instructions to help you hold your own focus group discussions. Two examples are provided that can be used as templates when you are creating a focus group discussion guide.

(Academic reference: University College London. (n.d.). Focus groups.  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/sites/culture/files/focus_groups.pdf)

A step-by-step guide to focus group research for non-governmental organizations by Jordan Civil Society Program (2012)

This manual offers a step-by-step guide to conducting focus group discussions. The manual is divided into 8 chapters: (1) introduction to qualitative research, (2) the focus group methodology, (3) thinking about research design, (4) developing the discussion guide, (5) recruiting participants, (6) moderating focus groups, (7) analysing data, (8) reporting and presenting results.

(Academic reference: Jordan Civil Society Program. (2012). A step-by-step guide to focus group research for non-governmental organizations. FHI 360. https://www.ngoconnect.net/sites/default/files/resources/A%20Step-by-Step%20Guide%20to%20Focus%20Group%20Research.pdf )

Focus group planning checklist by ETR (n.d.)

This is a checklist that you can use to plan your own focus group discussion. The checklist breaks down the steps involved with holding a focus group discussion into smaller manageable tasks that you can keep track of.

(Academic reference: ETR. (n.d.). Focus group planning checklist. https://www.etr.org/cisp/access-resources/focus-areas/organizational-development/focus-groups-planning-checklist-pdf/)

Blogs:

Managing the difficult focus group respondents by Richard Walker (2016)

This blog article offers tips on how to get the most out of your focus group discussions. The article covers different approaches you can use to ensure that all of your focus group participants have a chance to share their views.

(Academic reference: Walker, R. (2016, May 12). Managing the difficult focus group respondents. Mustard Research. https://www.mustard-research.com/blog/general/managing-difficult-focus-group-respondents/)

Articles:

Focus group methodology: Some ethical challenges by Sim and Waterfield (2019)

This article explains some of the distinctive ethical issues that focus groups raise in terms of consent, confidentiality and anonymity, and risk of harm to participants. It also suggests some practical strategies for mitigating ethical risks during the research process that can be combined to produce a general ethical strategy.

(Academic reference: Sim, J. and Waterfield, J. (2019). Focus group methodology: Some ethical challenges. Quality & Quantity, 53(6), pp.3003–3022. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11135-019-00914-5)

Method in action

Videos:

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Focus group session 5 demonstration by UMN_MCH (2019)

This Youtube video demonstrates what a focus group discussion might look like in practice. Using part of a focus group discussion on healthy lifestyles, the video shows how you could structure your own focus group discussion.

(Academic reference: UMN_MCH. (2019, July 16). Focus group session 5 demonstration [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scyTIRNDu_A)

Articles:

Lived experiences: A focus group pilot study within the mentALLY project of mental healthcare among European users by Axelsson et al. (2020)

This article describes an example of focus groups being used to capture the lived experiences of people who have used mental healthcare services in Europe. The ‘Method’ section gives you an idea of how participants can be recruited and how a moderator performs their role in particular.

(Academic reference: Axelsson, M., Schønning, V., Bockting, C., Buysse, A., Desmet, M., Dewaele, A., Giovazolias, T., Hannon, D., Kafetsios, K., Meganck, R., Ntani, S., Rutten, K., Triliva, S., Van Beveren, L., Vandamme, J., Øverland, S. & Hensing, G. (2020, July 1). Lived experiences: a focus group pilot study within the MentALLY project of mental healthcare among European users. BMC Health Services Research, 20(1). https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-020-05454-5)