How to run a successful focus group

Ken Norman of New Tricks has kindly provided a summary of his public engagement training on 3 December.

Focus Groups

Whether to test ideas for new projects, to uncover attitudes to a certain subject or to better understand the needs of a community, focus groups are a good way to supplement other forms of research.

When Should You Use a Focus Group?

A focus group collects different data, in a different way to one-on-one interviews that concentrate on individuals. Focus groups centre on groups, are more interactive and therefore more discursive. They are useful if we are interested in finding out what groups of people think, how consensus is formed and how people interact with one another – rather than a detailed understanding of an individuals’ rationale.

For this reason focus groups are widely used to for find out people’s attitudes. Explaining and accounting for their own attitudes or views is sometimes easier for people when they hear other people’s opinions. As a result they are also useful to see how people’s views or attitudes change as a result of a discussion, or when we are interested in more creative thinking – for example, in developing or testing solutions or strategies.

The public nature of focus groups,makes them unsuitable for discussing personal or sensitive topics or issues. These are better left to individual interviews where confidentiality can be assured.

Focus groups have proved to be a highly insightful research technique for engaging a group of people with a question or an idea. Bringing together a group to discuss a particular topic provides a more natural setting than one-to-one interviews, as it allows participants to share their stories and through discussion can enable new strands of thought to emerge. This qualitative research method can generate rich data in a less resource intensive way than interviewing.

Using a focus group to engage with questions of public engagement can form part of the design process of a wider survey, or it can uncover the opinions of key stakeholders. The purpose of this guide is to help you to think about the structure of your focus group and how it can bring benefits to student volunteering provisions.

A good focus group requires good planning –more planning than just inviting a few key people to share their opinions on a topic. Here are some ideas for conducting a high quality focus group. These are around:

  •  Defining you focus group
  • Writing your focus group questions
  • Recruiting and preparing participants
  • Tips on how to run the focus group
  • Analysing your data

1. Defining your focus group  

A focus group is made up of six to ten people (a group large enough to hold meaningful discussion but not so large that participants feel left out) led through an open discussion by a facilitator. The facilitator’s role is to encourage the discussion in an open and spontaneous format; the goal being to generate a maximum number of different ideas and opinions from as many different people in the time allotted. Set aside from 45 to 90 minutes anything over that becomes unproductive and an imposition on participant time.

Focus groups are structured around a set of carefully planned questions – usually no more than 10 – but the discussion is free flowing. Ideally, participant comments will stimulate and influence the thinking and sharing of others. Some people even find themselves changing their thoughts and opinions during the group.

A homogeneous group of strangers comprise the focus group. Homogeneity levels the playing field and reduces inhibitions among people who will probably never see each other again. It takes more than one focus group on any one topic to produce valid results – usually three or four. You’ll know you’ve conducted enough groups (with the same set of questions) when you’re not hearing anything new anymore.

A focus group is not:

  • A debate
  • Group therapy
  • A conflict resolution session
  • A problem solving session
  • An opportunity to collaborate
  • A promotional opportunity
  • An educational session

2. Designing your questions for your focus group

Having decided to hold a focus group to conduct research the next step is to reflect on the aims & objectives of the research and how to ensure the focus groups answers your questions specifically. A topic guide needs to be planned in advance; this outlines in order the areas for discussion during the focus group, with key ideas and questions to be discussed. This is used to ensure that subject areas are covered systematically and with some uniformity. Strike a balance in drafting topic guides. On the one hand, they should be flexible enough to prompt and allow free and open discussion, but on the other you should resist a rigid list of questions to be read out in succession.

It is useful to construct the topic guide, with the thought of a conversation in mind rather than interview questions. Therefore include topic questions, possibly with areas for prompting rather than exact questions. It is also important to think about the guide flexibly, as topics may be covered in a different order, in light of conversation.

It is useful to think through, during this planning stage, about ‘danger’ areas of discussion, this is where questions may lead to discussion which is not wholly useful to the research topic. It is also important to ensure the facilitator is aware of these and comfortable with ways of ensuring discussion moves back on track. Additionally, it may be helpful to include some activities or ideas for stimulating conversation and keeping the session engaging for the participants.

Twelve is the maximum number of questions for any one group. Ten is better, and eight is ideal.

Focus group participants won’t have a chance to see the questions they are being asked. So, to make sure they understand and can fully respond to the questions posed, questions should be:

  •  Short and to the point
  • Focused on one dimension each
  • Unambiguously worded
  • Open-ended i.e. worded in a way that means they cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer (use “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “how”)
  • Non-threatening

Here are three types of focus group questions:

1.  Engagement questions: introduce participants to and make them comfortable with the topic of discussion

2.  Exploration questions: get to the meat of the discussion

3.  Exit question: check to see if anything was missed in the discussion

3. Recruiting & preparing participants

In an ideal focus group, all the participants are very comfortable with each other but none of them know each other.  Homogeneity is key to maximizing disclosure among focus group participants. Consider the following in establishing selection criteria for individual groups:


It is important to think carefully about the mix of individuals you wish to take part in the focus group. More interesting ideas can emerge from a diverse range of individuals, as their experiences and attitudes may be broader. Though if wanting a range of viewpoints it is important to feel all participants will feel comfortable in expressing their opinions on the subject. This also needs to be considered in the size of the group, about 6-8 is ideal, although you may want to invite up to 10 in case some drop out, as it can prove challenging to confirm attendees. Additionally, depending on your aims and objectives considering your participants may also require you to think about how many focus groups you want to hold and the resources this will require.

Depending upon the aims of the focus group it may be that individuals are chosen and personally invited, as may be the case if looking for the perspective of community groups and their experience with student volunteers. Alternatively, it could be carried out in a less selective manner, which may be helpful if trying to approach students who are not already engaged with your work. For example, if recruiting students the focus group could be held as part of a wider event, such as a volunteer fair, attracting participants on the day.

Gender– Will both men and women feel comfortable discussing the topic in a mixed gender group?

Age – How intimidating would it be for a young person to be included in a group of older adults or vice versa?

Power – Would a teacher be likely to make candid remarks in a group where his student is also a participant?

Cliques – How influential might three cheerleaders be in a group of high school peers?

Participant inclusion/exclusion criteria should be established upfront and based on the purpose of the study. Use the criteria as a basis to screen all potential applicants.

Focus groups participants can be recruited in any one of a number of ways. Some of the most popular include:


Key individuals nominate people they think would make good participants. Nominees are familiar with the topic, known for their ability to respectfully share their opinions, and willing to volunteer about 2 hours of their time.

Random selection

If participants will come from a large but defined group (e.g. an entire high school) with many eager participants, names can be randomly drawn from a hat until the desired number of verified participants is achieved.

All members of the same group– Sometimes an already existing group serves as an ideal pool from which to invite participants (e.g. Family History Group, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce).

Same role/job title

Depending on the topic, the pool might be defined by position, title or condition (e.g. older writers, community health nurses, parents of teen-age boys).


When selection criteria are broad, participants can be recruited with flyers and newspaper ads.

Once a group of viable recruits has been established, call each one to confirm interest and availability. Give them times and locations of the focus groups and secure verbal confirmation. Tell them you will mail (or email) them a written confirmation and call to remind them two days before the scheduled group. Focus groups are valuable in carrying out public consultation. Facilitating discussion in a purposeful and open way, making sure everyone has the opportunity to take part, coping with disruptive participants and making sure the discussion remains relevant are all key aspects of convening focus groups. The development of these skills is essential for maximising the potential of focus groups and running them.


Consider whether the venue you intend to hold it in is appropriate – will people feel comfortable, not over- or underwhelmed. Ideally you should hold the focus group in the participants locality or community, in a building they are familiar with, one that is welcoming and not intimidating. ‘Free’ local authority venues may be cost effective, but may not be the best option for your respondents.


Focus groups should always be recorded and transcribed. Note-taking is a poor means of recording the discussion, not least because:

  • information will always be missed or misinterpreted;
  • it distracts the facilitator; and
  • it gives unintended cues for participants to slow down – or not to continue if something is not being taken down.

People rarely refuse to be recorded so long as it is explained why the discussion is being recorded and the confidentiality of the tapes and transcripts is assured. Indeed, anonymity should always be assured from the outset. Naturally, if people feel something could be attributable to them, this could change what they say, or they could refuse to take part.

Group Composition

On an issue that concerns the community as a whole, steps will need to be taken to ensure that all sections of the community are represented. This might be best done through the use of several focus groups, structured in terms of age, gender, social class, working status, ethnicity or geographical location as appropriate.

A key factor in designing a focus group study is to balance depth and coverage. The more tightly defined the group is, the greater the depth of understanding that could be gained through the discussion. Therefore, group composition will be influenced by the purpose of the study, finances available and the timeframe within which results are required. If you use mixed groups, think about their appropriateness – e.g. are there likely to be any gender, ethnicity and religious issues? Is the facilitator suitable and sufficiently independent from the group so that their presence does not influence peoples’ responses and the direction of the discussion?

Make sure that composition of the groups encourages rather than hinders the exchange of ideas.


You are not trying to be ‘representative’ when recruiting people to take part. However – this may seem like an obvious point – but make sure that the people you talk to reflect all the issues and characteristics relevant to your consultation. This could be simply by people’s role – such as bus driver, school child – or by less obvious criteria such as people’s experiences, behaviours.

People can be drawn from existing sources -i.e. administrative data, mailing or membership lists, published data or surveys etc. However, if these are not available you may need to actively find and recruit people to take part.  You can make direct contact with people. However, you might have difficulty either identifying who you need to speak to, actually making contact with them, or you think you may not get much response. Therefore use someone with ‘inside knowledge’ – i.e. a ‘gatekeeper’ – to approach and recruit people on your behalf.

Remember that although people agree to take part, this does not guarantee that they will come. If some people turn up, the session will probably have to be run regardless. Therefore, confirm people’s invite / attendance in writing and send a reminder with background information prior to the meeting. Include notes on what to expect, detail facilities, car parking and building access.

If it is thought that recruitment might be a problem, it is not uncommon to offer incentive payments. These can range from a token £5 gift voucher to a more substantial cash amount, say £20-30.


You do need to consider the costs of hosting a focus group and budget accordingly.  In addition to providing an incentive (if deemed necessary) another key cost could be for transcription. Transcribing the discussions will allow you to double-check aspects of the discussion and make sure that you have not misinterpreted any part of it. If you are undertaking a number of focus groups this will also allow you to better analyse and compare emerging points and issues. You could do this yourself (recommended if you are also doing the analysis) or employ a transcriber.

You should at least cover participants’ travel costs to and from venue. Other costs include hire of a suitable venue, refreshments such as tea coffee, biscuits and possibly a buffet.

 4. Tips for running your focus group

There are a number of options for the format of the focus group.

It is important to be flexible with timings and allow the conversations to reach a natural conclusion, usually lasts around one to two hours, but these should not be rigidly timetabled. It is important to let everyone have a chance to contribute to the discussion – don’t let one or two people dominate.

A focus group may also be conducted through conference calls or online, enabling discussion to encompass national or even international viewpoints easily and in a cost effective manner.

You need to record the focus group to ensure the data captured can be analysed later. A preferred option is to record the session, so that a transcript of what was said can be written up later.  Digital recorders are usually available for hire from your university.  It should be noted transcription takes considerable time to carry out. A debrief of the session with the facilitators and any observers is also useful as they may have further insights.

Effective facilitation is the key to a successful focus group. It is important to ensure that the discussion does not diverge too much from the topic guide which lists the main areas of interest to be covered. It is the facilitators’ job to move the discussion along without imposing their own views and they must also ensure that particular participants do not dominate the discussion or ‘shout down’ others.

For some people attending a focus group can be intimidating and nerve-wrecking, it is important therefore to help people feel at ease. It is polite for the facilitator to introduce themself and ask participants to say their name, where they are from and what they do, this helps settles the group.

If you do elect to run a focus group yourself, some general tips are listed below:

Welcome people as they arrive. Help fill the time before you start, mingle with participants, collect details and hand out incentives.  Deal confidently and effectively with practical matters such as refreshments, incentives, recording and seating.

Before you begin introduce yourself and the purpose of the group. For an ice breaker ask people to introduce themselves.

Name labels are also useful.

Set the ground rules and manage housekeeping.

Eye contact is very important, look up at respondents rather than down at the guide and make sure the discussion runs at an appropriate pace so that you cover everything you need to.

As a facilitator (unless you have shorthand skills) you cannot take accurate notes of the discussion, you will always miss information or possibly interpret it differently. You should record the discussion (seek permission to do this first). The transcription will also allow you to accurately analyse the discussion at a later date.

It might be appropriate to provide paper, pens and flip charts to help promote discussion. Start with easy questions as a warm up and leave sensitive more complex questions to the end after group dynamics and rapport has been established within the group. As facilitator you should not give your opinion or say where you stand.

Ask questions that are simple, single, open-ended and non-directive or leading. Give people time to answer, do not rush to fill the silence or finish people’s sentences. Make sure you probe fully, don’t assume you know the context / motivation for why someone has said something.

Do not allow side discussions to take place, invite contributions and avoid getting locked in with one person. It is essential that you try and get everyone to take part, neutralise the ‘discussion hog’ or disruptive participant. Ask them to leave if necessary.

Concentrate and listen carefully, do not let your attention wander.

Pay attention to non-verbal signals.

Always end on a positive/constructive note, invite questions and re-affirm uses of findings and confidentiality.

Remember you are in control: if you are tentative the group will feel uncomfortable.

Example session

There are a number of stages to a focus group, outlined below.

Stage 1:      INTROduction
Introduce yourself
It is very important that the participants understand why you are running the session… explain the need for the focus group.
Topic:  introduce the topic and the range of discussion
Rules: Participants must be able to give their ‘informed consent’ to take part.
Explain the mechanics of the session: that you will be asking questions and that you need them to answer honestly.  Explain how recordings will be used and that they are free to leave the session at any time.  You should also gain consent to record the focus group
Explain that everyone should feel comfortable to contribute.
Also say that you may call “time out” in order to give everyone a chance to contribute.
Give the time by which you will finish.
Objective:  share with the group how you will be using the data.

Stage 2:      Introductions – go around the table and ask everyone to introduce themselves, stating their first name clearly. This will be important for writing up the recording later. You can also ask participants to give a short answer to an introductory question to get everyone involved in the discussion from the outset.

Stage 3:      Discussion – It is likely that the discussion will take place in a different order to that listed on the topic guide. The facilitator should also be prepared to tactfully steer the group back to the topics under consideration if the conversation goes too much off track.

Stage 4:      Keeping engaged– the facilitator should be prepared to change the format of the discussion if needed to ensure the most useful discussion can occur. This may be by introducing an activity based around the questions or a light-hearted activity.

Stage 5:      Ending the discussion – it is good to end the discussion with a ‘closing round’, asking each participant in turn to offer final reflections or answer a final question. Followed by informing the participants of the next steps with the research and how they can stay informed or involved with the work. Ensure you finish at least five minutes ahead of schedule. Thank everyone for their contribution – hand out the incentive.

5. Analysing the Data

Focus groups collect vast amounts of text. Therefore, although the process of determining what people have said is easy to understand, breaking this down to make sure you have captured a full and balanced picture of the views expressed is a time-consuming and complex process.  Unfortunately, there are no real shortcuts, although it is important to recognise that this stage is AS important as doing the consultation itself. Inadequate analysis will leave you, on the one hand, with selective extracts merely supporting one particular viewpoint, or on the other, a simple catalogue of random, unfocussed quotations.

Analysing qualitative data can be broken down into three stages:

1. Familiarisation.

Read the transcripts of the interviews and familiarise yourself with the data. Literally ‘label’ the data so that it can be easily identified and categorised as common themes emerge. Depending on your consultation, it could relate to age, gender, post code or for example, whether a view was prompted or based on actual experience.

2. Organisation.

Structure the data by collating all the data under the different labels. Start building up an outline of the issues and begin compiling them under common themes.

3. Interpretation.
Issues and themes can then start to be developed and tested. This stage – and your ability to develop explanations – lies at the heart of analysis. Most data is very rich in the levels of explanation it can offer and you need to think about drawing out and explaining why patterns, linkages or apparent contradictions are found in the data. This can be a long and intricate process.

Whether undertaking the analysis yourself, or someone else is doing the analysis for you, there are a number of key principles to think about:

Make sure that you have allowed sufficient time to analyse your results. It will always take longer than you think and it is usually the part that is cut short because of delays earlier on. Rushed analysis will only give you poor quality findings.  It is important that key messages from your exercise are clearly identified and reported. You should also identify areas where views diverge and opinions are divided. See the Toolkit on the intranet for some hints on identifying key messages from your data. Analyse responses with ano pen mind – otherwise the exercise will be seen to validate a previously held view and it will be difficult to defend should the decision it supports be subject to legal challenge.

Provide Balanced Views

On a controversial issue views may be strongly polarised. This may happen, for example, if a facility is deemed to be a ‘good thing’ by the population as a whole but no-one wants it in their own back yard. When reporting, make sure that confidentiality assurances have been kept and you have complied with the Data Protection requirements.

Provide clear feedback

Throughout the course of qualitative analysis, you should be asking and re-asking yourself the following questions:

What patterns and common themes emerge in responses dealing with specific items?

How do these patterns (or lack) help to answer your key questions, aims and objectives?

Are there any deviations from these patterns?

If yes, are there any factors that might explain these atypical responses?

What interesting stories emerge from the responses? How can these stories help to illuminate your broader question(s)?

Do any of these patterns or findings suggest that additional data may need to be collected? Do any of the study questions need to be revised?

Do the patterns that emerge corroborate the findings of the work?

If not, what might explain these discrepancies?

Reporting Findings

Overall, when reporting or presenting your results think about the diversity and range of views that were expressed. Highlight patterns and themes in the discussion. Don’t get bogged down in numbers or prevalence! Don’t just list quotes, use what people said to illustrate and amplify the discussion.

The key is to portray the subtleties and detail of the data whilst maintaining the balance and link between description and interpretation.

Elaborate accounts, insufficient description of linkages, too little selectivity of the issues being conveyed and over-reliance on describing rather than interpreting data, are all common issues in reporting interview data.

Good reporting should provide a clear account of how the analysis was undertaken. It should be clear what is ‘reported’ data and what is being inferred. Quotations can only partially explain the concept being described and so should be used to illustrate points being made rather than to make the point itself.  It should be apparent how conclusions have been arrived at – what evidence backs up different findings, why some explanations have been given more weight than others and how/why explanations differ by people’s characteristics and circumstances.

Things to avoid in Reporting Qualitative Data

  • Don’t quantify – that’s not the point of focus groups
  • Don’t overuse certain transcriptions / respondents
  • Don’t duplicate quotes
  • Don’t misapply quotes
  • Make sure quotes are in context and easy to understand
  • Don’t ‘sanitise’ quotes – tell it how it is!!
  • Don’t overdo quotations – use them to illustrate, rather than tell the story.
  • Be careful not to compromise confidentiality.






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