Conducting focus groups: my PhD experience

22 Apr

Having reflected on my experiences with recruiting participants for focus groups, I shall continue with this thread and share my experiences of conducting the focus groups. In contrast to the recruitment process, I absolutely loved this part. In fact, I was a little bit sad when they were all finished! Obviously I can’t cover everything here, so I will touch upon some of the aspects that were particularly salient for me.

Preparation

Getting the right venue to conduct my focus groups was important. I wanted my participants to feel welcome and comfortable so that discussions would flow with ease. Most of my focus groups were conducted in community centres mainly due to recruiting already formed social groups from the centres. The rooms were clean, warm, and spacious and had comfortable chairs. Having a table was also important for placing name cards on and laying out light refreshments. I made sure I arrived an hour before to be able to arrange the room. Community centres didn’t charge me very much for the use of the room either (anything from £5 – £20). I did do one focus group in a local pub which also worked well. They gave me the function room and even provided the refreshments (free of charge!)

Prior to focus group

I made sure that a bit of time was spent with my participants before the focus group to develop a rapport. I spoke to them about anything but the study at this stage and made sure I included everyone in the conversation. I also provided light refreshments. Although when I say light, I did go way overboard for the first couple. I spent a fortune in M & S on all sorts of food that they didn’t eat! A few biscuits or cakes were all that was needed to go with their tea, coffee and juice. I also brought my own kettle etc. with me.

Also, I made sure that all the paper work was completed prior to the focus group (consent form signed and screening questionnaire completed) so they wouldn’t be forgotten about after. Don’t underestimate the amount of time this all takes. It was an important part of the process so I made sure I didn’t rush it. However, it does add onto participants’ time so I needed to be mindful of that.

 

Participant numbers

I got quite obsessed about having the ‘correct’ of people in each focus group. I thought the more the better. However, I found that not to be the case. The most I had was 8 people and from my experience this was too many. This resulted in a couple of people not saying much at all and some were often interrupted so they weren’t able to finish what they had started to say. Having too many was also difficult for keeping track of who was saying what in my notes. The least amount I had in one group was 3. Although for me it worked out well as they all had lots to say, but it could have also made the discussions a bit stagnant. I found 5 or 6 people were ideal.

Moderating

This was not as easy as the books make it out to be!! My biggest challenge for the first couple was trying to keep quiet! Focus groups are about participant interaction, they are flexible and conversation shouldn’t be forced. Having only a small handful of loosely structured questions (with prompts) helped. However, at the beginning, it was really hard to just to let the conversation flow naturally (even if it did divert from my questions). It wasn’t until I began transcribing that I realised what valuable data this generated (important part of inductive analysis). I also found it difficult not to respond after each person spoke. What this did was to ‘encourage’ my participants to speak to me (rather than each other). When I learned not to do this, they actually rarely looked at me or spoke to me. I like the term Jenny Kitzinger uses: ‘structured eavesdropping’. It’s a difficult thing to do at the beginning, but once I got the hang of it and felt comfortable taking a back seat, it was easy.

Note taking

My advice here is that if you can get someone to take notes, then brilliant! A note taker would have helped my hugely to record the beginning of each person’s sentence (makes transcribing a whole lot easier!). Additionally, the interaction process of participants is an important part of focus group data. A note taker can record the non-verbal language or any specific issues that arise during discussions. All of this is quite difficult to do whilst moderating and things can get missed. However, I managed it and found it much easier after I learned to take a back seat during the discussions. What helped me also was placing name cards in front of each participant and whenever I spoke to them I used their names. On a piece of paper, I also drew the layout of the room and identified where everyone sat. This was helpful for transcribing as I was able to place voices to where they were sitting.

Stimulus material

This was great to stimulate further in-depth discussions about a particular topic. I used newspaper headlines of a Clostridium difficile outbreak as I wanted to explore more in-depth perceptions about media representation. I also found them to be a good tool for encouraging quieter participants to become more involved in the conversation. If you are using something like that – best to laminate them as they can be cleaned between focus groups!

Recording

I recorded all my focus groups using a small Olympus digital voice recorder. Just in case anything went wrong, I also used my phone to record as a backup. However, nothing went wrong ant the digital voice recorder worked perfectly.

Time

I read a lot about how long a focus group should go on for. I was very conscious of not taking advantage of my participants’ time so I said I wouldn’t keep them for longer than an hour. However, I also had to be mindful that the introductions etc. at the beginning were included in that. Overall though, I found 45 minutes generated ample data and was enough time for participants to remain interested and focused. Some did go on for a bit longer but not too much. Also remember that moderating focus groups is very draining so it’s not in your best interest to let them go on for too long! Additionally, transcribing and analysing copious amounts of data would be very time consuming.

Showing appreciation

If it wasn’t for my participants, I simply couldn’t do my study so it was important that I was able to thank my participants. For the members of the public, I gave each person £15 cash (ethically approved). I was able to do this through being awarded a small education grant to help run my focus groups by Ethicon. My healthcare professionals were provided with boxes of chocolates (my funding didn’t stretch to enable them to be given £15 also!).

Post focus group

After my participants had left, I made sure that I had at least an hour to stay in the room and write. I took time to reflect on the session in its entirety and wrote about my perceptions of critical points that had emerged.  Additionally, I wrote about what went well and what didn’t go so well. This also helped me prepare for my next focus group. Reflecting on my focus groups went on for a long time after each one and I found Evernote on my phone invaluable for recording my thoughts as and when they popped into my mind. I also tried to transcribe as quickly as possible because if I had missed anything on my notes, I was able to place voices to responses much easier.

One of the things I would strongly advise is not to try not to do too many in a short space of time. They really are physically and mentally draining. You also need some time to reflect on each one before you embark on the next. Because I stayed in one of the geographical areas for the duration of all my focus groups, just because they were so far away from where I lived, I wasn’t able to spread them out too much so my reflective writing was very helpful.

One final, most important point I will make is to relax and enjoy them because you only get one chance. I felt extremely privileged and humbled that my participants were so willing to give me their time and share their thoughts and personal experiences. I met some wonderful people and generated truely fascinating and some unexpected data. I am now very excited about starting analysis.

I hope you have found my reflections helpful. I don’t proclaim to be an expert in any way, but learning from past experiences certainly helps. Please do leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences.

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8 Responses to “Conducting focus groups: my PhD experience”

  1. Salma Patel (@salma_patel) May 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for the great post, I’ve learnt a lot from it. A few questions:

    “Having a table was also important for placing name cards on and laying out light refreshments.”

    So you didn’t ask them to wear name cards? Any reason why not?

    “I spent a fortune in M & S on all sorts of food that they didn’t eat! A few biscuits or cakes were all that was needed to go with their tea, coffee and juice. I also brought my own kettle etc. with me.” – I’ll keep cake out of the equation then. Its always hard to estimate how much people will have.

    “Also, I made sure that all the paper work was completed prior to the focus group (consent form signed and screening questionnaire completed) so they wouldn’t be forgotten about after. Don’t underestimate the amount of time this all takes. It was an important part of the process so I made sure I didn’t rush it.”

    Did you ask people to arrive 15 minutes before the focus group? How did you arrange the timings? Was someone there to help you with the consent sheets?

    “I found 5 or 6 people were ideal.”

    Thank you! I’ll keep that in mind. Was the ideal number the same for the public and healthcare professionals?

    Final question :), did you face any sticky/awkward situations and if so how did you manage them?

    Salma

    • Emma Burnett May 16, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      HI Salma.

      Thanks for reading this and taking the time to leave comments. I didn’t ask them to wear name cards because often when particpants are talking to each other they move to face eachother and the name cards can get hidden. Having them on the table meant I could see them clearly at all times.

      I didn’t ask them to arrive early mainly because most of the groups were opportunistic in that most were at their social group and were asked just to come up when the group was finished. However in pre arranged groups, it would probably be a good idea to do this. Either that or if there are still things to discuss at the end, ask they if they wouldn’t mind continuing. None of my particpants were in a hurry to leave to if they did over run a little, it wasn’t a problem. I generally said it would be about an hour so this was fine.

      I didn’t have anyone with me, so the key was to be organised. I made sure I had all the paper work in piles & in order so there was no faffing about at the time.

      Yes – for me the ideal number was the same for healthcare professionals. I did however have three in a couple of healthcare professional groups just due to availablities, but this still worked well.

      I was prepared for some awkward situations, more so in the West where feelings were still pretty raw and upsetting due to the outbreak and subsequent deaths, but I found people really wanted to talk about their experiences quite openly. Mainly they wanted to ask me lots of questions about C.difficile during the focus groups, but I just said I would speak to them at the end once the focus group was over as I didn’t want to influence their discussions in any way.

      Hope this helps and will look forward to hearing your experiences. Please feel free to ask any more questions. I find talking people who have gone through focus groups was much more helpful than reading text books.

      • Salma Patel (@salma_patel) May 16, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

        Thanks for sharing the above, and I couldn’t agree more:

        “I find talking people who have gone through focus groups was much more helpful than reading text books.”

  2. Aliye Karabulut April 7, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi Emma,
    Thank you for a great post. I have a question after the fact. I did a focus group interview with students in a class. I asked the TA to put them into groups so that we would not have all silent, or all talkative people in one group. I mean if I had all silent people in one group I am afraid the conversations would stuck or vice-versa. I think I have read this somewhere, but I cannot locate it. Now a reviewer asks me why I did that and whether it would create a bias in the results. Do you know any resource that I could reference. I keep searching but could not find one that specifically mentions this.

    • Emma Burnett April 8, 2015 at 7:56 am #

      Hi Aliye. Thank you for your comment and question. Purposive sampling for focus groups shouldn’t take into consideration talkative or silent people, only specific characteristics that are necessary for your study (i.e. age, gender, experience, etc.). I agree with the reviewer in that it may introduce bias. Even if you have quieter/shy students in one focus group, the topic of conversation in your focus group may stimulate more engagement and interaction. You will inevitably have a range of talkative or quieter participants and therefore it is up to the skills of the moderator to manage this appropriately and effectively by the use of probing, encouraging quieter ones to have more of a voice and manage the louder ones carefully and tactfully, rather than trying to place them in specific groups. I have read extensively around conducting focus groups and I have never read anything that promotes this type of sampling. I had a particularly quiet group for one of my focus groups but noticed that they became more stimulated when they talked about a specific issue. I therefore used the issue they were talking about, asked some (broad) probing questions and this subsequently generated a more naturally occurring, flowing conversation which then progressed further. Just be mindful that for the quieter participants you don’t use too structured questions or language that may perhaps lead them to respond the way in which you would like as this can also introduce significant bias.

      Having said all that, it sounds like you have already done this? In that case, I would suggest that you acknowledge that this perhaps is a limitation of your study and through reflection, this could have potentially introduced bias. Did you keep a research journal or make notes immediately after your focus groups? Maybe use this to persuade the reviewer that although the risk of bias was present, having considered how the focus group went, you believe this was minimal due to A, B & C? Hope this helps and good luck. If you have any more questions, just ask.

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