Tag Archives: focus groups

Member checking v’s dissemination focus groups in qualitative research

27 Nov

Historically, member checking (also known as member/participant validation) qualitative research findings has been viewed as an important aspect of establishing accuracy, credibility and validity (Koelsch 2013). Simply, member checking occurs when the researcher returns to participants to seek approval that the researcher has accurately reported their narratives and to gain further comments.

I hadn’t given member checking much thought (I conducted focus groups with members of the public and healthcare professionals in addition to one-to-one interviews with newspaper journalists and editors). It wasn’t until I had finished my preliminary data analysis when it was suggested to me by my supervisors.  This, I admit wasn’t a welcomed suggestion mainly due to the challenges it would likely cause. However, not being one to dismiss supervisor suggestions, I took myself off to explore this concept further. The outcome of this exploration was that I would not conduct member checks as I could not see a clear benefit. Here was my rationale:

  • As some of my focus groups were opportunistically undertaken from already-formed social groups, locating the same participants was likely to be impossible. They were also conducted quite some time ago
  • Geographically, my focus groups were conducted in another part of Scotland. I didn’t have the time or the energy at this stage of my research to travel back there for this purpose, especially when I questioned the effectiveness
  • Just say I was able to locate my participants, I could potentially cause them discomfort having to listen to sensitive issues being discussed, especially around my interpretation of their narratives
  • My participants could also feel uncomfortable hearing their own words
  • Exposing my preliminary findings and interpretation to my participants could make me feel uncomfortable (not a big deal but nevertheless the potential is there)
  • My participants may have forgotten they have said things therefore not be able to validate them. Alternatively, they may unintentionally wrongly recall what they have said and change the nature of the discussion that actually took place
  • My participants may request the removal of valuable data from the focus group. Also, they may have changed their perceptions about something and request that their narrative or part of their narrative is removed
  • The same group dynamics can never be recreated. Since group dynamics and interaction is a key component in my  focus group data analysis, it was deemed impossible to recreate the same group dynamics

However, this then left me with a gap.  Although I made the decision not to conduct member checks, it didn’t mean I could ignore the issue. This meant further reading and exploration. I also took to twitter to help me and received some excellent responses, in particular from Dr Bronwyn Hemsely @BronwynHemsley who had similar experiences.

Taking into consideration all the above points, and also importantly, keeping my epistemological stance of weak social constructionism and methodological approach (Interpretive descriptive methodology) at the forefront of my mind, I knew I wasn’t looking to ‘validate’ my findings, nor did I want to seek confirmation of a ‘truth’. Rather, I wanted to present my conceptual thinking and seek thoughts and ideas as to how I could be further develop them. Equally, I wanted to explore whether I had missed something important.  I therefore went down the route of dissemination focus groups. This is advocated by Rose Barbour (2005) as a more useful method to feedback preliminary findings than member checking. Focus group

So what I did was generate one focus group (6 people (two of whom were original participants)) with a mixture of members of the public and healthcare professionals (reflecting the characteristics of my participants). I prepared a Prezi and presented my key categories from my findings then asked specific questions for further discussion. The focus group was recorded with permission from the group and lasted just over one hour. I also provided light refreshments and gave small gifts as a token of my appreciation. Over all, I found this experience hugely beneficial as it:

  • Helped me explain and contextualise my study as a whole concisely and succinctly (something which has never come easy for me!)
  • Enhanced my analytical and interpretational sophistication through agreement and offers of further considerations
  • Crystallised similar and different perspectives from both the public and healthcare professionalsThinking
  • Helped further consider my findings in terms of what they mean in relation to informing practice and policy today and for the future
  • Was fun for me and those who took part

If you are considering member checking for qualitative research, I would definitely recommend dissemination sessions as an alternative. I’m not however, saying this is the right way and member checking is the wrong way , or indeed the way I did it was the right way – we know there is no right or wrong in qualitative research. What I am saying is that this was the right way for me and my research. I imagine there are various and innovative ways in which this can be done, but hopefully sharing how I did mine gives food for thought. I would be very interested to hear from others their experiences of either member checks or dissemination sessions (interviews or focus groups). Were they helpful or a hindrance?


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.


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.


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!


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.


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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