Focusing on Focus Groups

A focus group should be an easy home run, right? After all, most people love to share their opinions. And with thoughtful planning combined with skillful facilitation, your focus group can help meet your organization’s goals and be the home run you are looking for.

Here are some things to consider as you plan for your focus group.

Prior to Convening the Focus Group
Pre-planning is crucial for a successful focus group. You will likely only have a brief amount of time with the group and you want to maximize every minute!

Consider the following:
Are you crystal clear about what you want to learn from the focus group? Clarity around what you need to gain from the process will help you to formulate questions that will bear fruitful responses.

Have you developed questions that align with your learning goals? Review each question and ask yourself, “will this question help to elicit information that addresses our learning goals?” If you are unsure, eliminate the question. Less is more here. Having fewer, yet pointed questions, will allow more people to speak and allow you to dive deeper into issues of importance.

Communicate ahead of time any information that will allow for more efficient time with your focus group. Include in your invitation the purpose of the focus group, how the information will be used, how long the group will last. Let people know whether the invitation is to a wide group of people or just a select few. People like to know what to expect.

Facilitating the group

A few suggestions:
Run a tight ship and stay on your toes! One of the greatest challenges of facilitating a successful focus group is balancing the need to allow participants to share fully and keep within the given time constraints. Determine ahead of the session how much time you want to devote to each question. Set a timer on your phone or other device for each segment of your focus group, be prepared to let the conversation run a bit longer than you expect if the group is on a roll, while also keeping an eye on the time and nimbly moving the group to the next question.

Pull out that pencil! How’s your handwriting these days? Take notes by hand – placing a computer between you and the group can be a distraction. You want participants to feel comfortable speaking freely. For some, a computer may give a signal that their words are being recorded and this can inhibit honesty. When it is just you and your paper and pen, you create a more intimate environment that is ripe for sharing.

Demonstrate that you understand the ideas, concerns, and themes that participants are contributing. Periodically pause and summarize a common theme that you’ve observed or note something poignant. “I’m hearing confusion about the policies around x – can you talk a bit more about that,” or if something elicits emotional responses from the group, acknowledge the emotion, “clearly this is an issue that strikes a nerve.” Demonstrating that you understand what the individuals are communicating builds trust between you and the group; it instills confidence and can lead to richer learnings.

Finish strong. Be sure to plan time for a brief wrap up. Earnest and genuine thank yous go a long way. Offer specific thanks: thank the participants for their time, honesty, dedication to the organization (if relevant). Explain the next steps in the process, how you will use the information gleaned from the conversation, and offer a time frame for any follow up, if appropriate.

Focus groups can be energizing and enlightening for both the facilitator and the participants. Good luck and enjoy!

Linda Mann Simansky is a Facilitator and Program Evaluator located in Greater Boston, MA. Linda has the unique ability to ask the right questions; questions that elicit key information that helps the client achieve their learning goals. To learn more and have your workplace questions answered, please contact: