The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

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Learn the essential building blocks of qualitative research: key definitions, research design, data collection methods, and important ethical considerations.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. Introduction and overview
  2. What is qualitative research?
  3. What is qualitative data?
  4. Examples of qualitative data
  5. Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  6. Mixed methods
  7. Qualitative research preparation
  8. Theoretical perspective
  9. Theoretical framework
  10. Literature reviews
  11. Research question
  12. Conceptual framework
  13. Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  14. Data collection
  15. Qualitative research methods
  16. Interviews
  17. Focus groups
    1. Overview
    2. What is a focus group in research?
    3. Why are focus groups effective in research?
    4. What are some research examples of focus groups?
    5. Planning and conducting focus groups
    6. Challenges and limitations of focus groups
  18. Observational research
  19. Case studies
  20. Surveys
  21. Ethnographical research
  22. Ethical considerations
  23. Confidentiality and privacy
  24. Bias
  25. Power dynamics
  26. Reflexivity

Focus groups

Focus groups are a widely used qualitative research method in which a small group of participants engage in guided discussions on a specific topic. You might think of a focus group as a group interview because it can gather information on people's experiences, opinions, and feelings in a natural and interactive setting. However, the group dynamic of a focus group discussion can also be especially useful for observing how people construct meaning together, practice body language, and interact with each other.

A focus group discussion is an ideal research method for collecting data in a social setting.

In this section, we'll discuss the focus group method, compare it to interview research, and explore what researchers can do with focus group data.

What is a focus group in research?

Focus groups are characterized by their collaborative, interactive nature, with discussions guided by a facilitator or moderator. These qualities raise some similarities with and differences from qualities found in interview research.

What is the purpose of a focus group?

Like interviews, focus groups are often used to elicit opinions and perspectives about a topic, product, or service. Market research often employs focus group discussions to test out something new before it is introduced to the larger public. However, a focus group can also illuminate social behavior by allowing researchers to observe how people interact with each other in a way that wouldn't be possible with interviews or observations.

How many people form a focus group?

One key characteristic is the number of focus group participants involved. In this type of research, a moderator will typically work with a small group of 6 to 10 focus group members. This range is considered optimal because it is small enough to allow everyone a chance to share their thoughts and large enough to ensure a diversity of perspectives. Too few participants can limit the richness of the discussion, while too many can make the discussion difficult to manage and may prevent some participants from expressing their views.

What does a focus group do?

In general, a focus group consists of posing questions to a group of people and inviting then to discuss the question or topic. Focus group discussions are typically guided by a set of open-ended questions prepared in advance by the researcher. Ideally, focus group questions serve as prompts to stimulate discussion and to ensure that all relevant topics are covered.

The nature of these questions varies depending on the research objectives. Still, they are generally broad and non-directive, allowing participants the freedom to express their views and experiences in their own words. The role of the moderator is to use these questions to guide the discussion, to probe deeper when necessary, and to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to contribute.

Why are focus groups effective in research?

The interaction among group members is the defining characteristic that sets focus groups apart from other qualitative research methods like individual interviews. They allow researchers to observe how opinions are formed and influenced within a social context. Through these interactions, researchers can gain insights into not only individual attitudes and beliefs but also the group dynamics that shape these attitudes and beliefs.

Focus group dynamics can be useful in observing how opinions are informed and influenced within a social context. Photo by Sebastian Herrmann.

The interaction among participants can stimulate new thoughts and ideas, reveal points of agreement or disagreement, and highlight the process of consensus-building or negotiation that occurs in a group setting. The moderator plays a crucial role in facilitating these interactions, encouraging participation, managing conflicts, and maintaining a constructive and respectful discussion environment.

Why are focus groups effective in research?

Focus groups are used in a variety of research settings, from market research to social science studies, due to their versatility in collecting qualitative data. They provide a rich source of information as they capture not only what people think but also how they think and why they think the way they do. Let's look at some of the potential applications of focus groups in research.

Exploratory research

Focus groups are particularly valuable in exploratory research, which is often the first step in investigating a new or complex issue. Exploratory research aims to gain a general understanding of a problem, and focus groups are well-suited for this task due to their interactive and dynamic nature. They can help researchers identify key themes, generate propositions, and develop a deeper understanding of the research context. By encouraging open-ended discussion, these group interactions can reveal a breadth of perspectives and experiences and uncover issues and insights that researchers may not have anticipated.

Idea generation

The group dynamics of focus groups can stimulate creative thinking and the generation of new ideas. This can be particularly beneficial in fields such as product development, policy making, and program design. In these settings, focus groups can help researchers or practitioners gather a range of ideas about a new product, policy, or program, which can then be further refined and evaluated.

Focus group members can share ideas, solve problems, or generate new ideas. Photo by Mapbox.

Language and terminology

Focus groups can also provide valuable insights into the language and terms that participants use to discuss a certain topic. This is particularly important in qualitative research, where the goal is often to understand the meanings and interpretations that people attach to their experiences. The language used in focus group discussions can reveal these meanings and interpretations and help researchers develop a more nuanced understanding of the topic under study. This understanding can also be particularly useful when developing survey instruments or interpreting other qualitative data.

Assessing concepts and prototypes

Focus groups can also be used to assess concepts and prototypes. For example, in marketing research, a focus group might be used to gather feedback on a new product design or to understand how potential users interact with a prototype. In social science research, focus groups might be used to refine and verify concepts or theories that are relevant to group behavior. This kind of feedback can help researchers and practitioners hone their ideas based on the social interactions of the focus group.

Observing social interaction online

The advent of digital technologies has expanded the possibilities for observing social interaction through the use of online focus groups. Online focus groups, conducted via video conferencing platforms, chat rooms, or discussion forums, offer similar benefits to their in-person counterparts but with added flexibility. They allow participants from diverse geographical locations to engage in discussion, and they can be more convenient and less intimidating for some participants.

Conducting a focus group online is a good way to observe differences in social interaction. Photo by Compare Fibre.

Moreover, online focus groups can provide a written or recorded transcript of the discussion, which can be useful for analysis. However, they also present unique challenges, such as managing group dynamics in a virtual environment and ensuring access and comfort with the necessary technology among participants.

What are some research examples of focus groups?

Many different fields use focus groups both as a means to collect honest opinions about key research topics or to observe human behavior and interaction. Let's look at some of the many fields that employ a focus group format in research.

Consumer behavior: In market research, focus groups are often used to understand consumer preferences and attitudes toward products or services. For instance, a company might use a focus group to gauge consumer reactions to a new product concept or to understand the reasons behind purchasing decisions.

Healthcare: In healthcare research, focus groups have been used to explore patients' experiences and perceptions of healthcare services or to understand the attitudes and beliefs of healthcare providers. For example, a study might conduct focus groups with patients to gain insights into the barriers and facilitators to medication adherence.

Education: In educational research, focus groups can be used to understand student experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. For instance, a university might use focus groups to explore students' perceptions of campus safety, or a school district might conduct focus group discussions with teachers to understand the challenges they face in implementing a new curriculum.

Public policy: Focus groups can provide valuable insights into the formulation and evaluation of public policies. They can be used to understand public perceptions and attitudes toward policy proposals or to gather feedback on existing policies. For example, a local government might use focus groups to explore residents' views on a proposed transportation policy.

Planning and conducting focus groups

As with interviews, conducting a focus group isn't simply a matter of having people in the same place and talking to them. Focus group research methods call for intentional planning and organization. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when thinking about focus groups.

Selecting participants

The selection of participants is a crucial step in planning a focus group. Participants should be chosen based on their relevance to the research question. They might share a common characteristic (e.g., they are users of a particular service, or they belong to a specific age group), or they may represent a diversity of perspectives on the topic under discussion.

The group should be small enough to manage (typically 6-10 participants) but large enough to ensure a variety of views. In some cases, researchers might choose to conduct multiple focus groups to compare and contrast different groups’ views.

Developing a discussion guide

A discussion guide outlines the topics to be discussed during the focus group. It typically includes a list of open-ended questions and prompts that are designed to stimulate discussion on the research topic.

The questions should be thoughtfully constructed and sequenced, starting with broader questions to warm up the group and progressively focusing on more specific areas of interest. While the discussion guide serves as a roadmap for the session, the moderator should be flexible and responsive to the flow of the discussion, probing for deeper insights and following up on interesting or unexpected comments.

Role of the moderator

The role of the moderator is central to the success of a focus group. A skilled moderator facilitates the discussion, encourages participation, manages group dynamics, and ensures that all topics in the discussion guide are covered. The moderator needs to ensure each participant gets a chance to express their views, and it is also helpful to keep participants from speaking over one another so that everyone can be heard, both during the discussion and for subsequent transcription.

The moderator needs to create an environment where participants feel comfortable sharing their views while also ensuring that the discussion remains focused and productive. This requires a balance of active listening, gentle steering, and tactful intervention when necessary.

Managing group dynamics

Managing group dynamics is a key challenge in focus groups. The interaction among participants can stimulate rich and insightful discussions, but it can also lead to issues such as dominance by a few participants, groupthink, or conflicts. As a result, the moderator plays a crucial role in managing these dynamics, encouraging quieter participants to speak, respectfully managing more dominant participants, and facilitating a constructive and respectful discussion environment.

However, the extent to which the moderator controls the discussion may depend on the research inquiry driving the focus group, particularly if the study is concerned with observing a particular behavior or group dynamic. A fruitful focus group discussion often consists of participants speaking with each other, as opposed to each participant simply answering the moderator one by one.

Focus group question examples

Designing focus group questions is an art in itself, with a focus on sparking discussion and interaction among participants. Here are some example questions that are particularly suited for focus groups:

  • "How do others here feel about what [participant's name] just said?" This question can encourage participants to respond to each other's views, fostering a more interactive discussion.
  • "Can anyone provide a different perspective on this issue?" This prompt invites diversity of opinion and encourages quieter participants to contribute.
  • "Why do you think people might have different opinions about this topic?" This question can stimulate discussion about the reasons behind varying perspectives.
  • "Can you help me understand why this is important to you?" By asking for elaboration, this question can lead to deeper, more nuanced discussions.
  • "Has anyone had a different experience?" This question can bring out a range of experiences and perspectives within the group.
  • "How do you think others outside of this group might view this issue?" This question encourages participants to consider perspectives beyond their own, fostering empathy and understanding.

By crafting questions that prompt group interaction and discussion, researchers can harness the full potential of the focus group method.

Challenges and limitations of focus groups

At first glance, a focus group is a great way to quickly capture the perspectives of multiple participants. That said, meeting this goal has its challenges. Let's discuss some of them briefly.

Recruitment and participation

One of the key challenges in conducting focus groups is recruiting and retaining an appropriate group of participants. Given the group-based nature of this method, a single participant dropping out can significantly impact the dynamics and the effectiveness of the session. Ensuring a diversity of views while also creating a comfortable environment for open discussion can be a delicate balance to strike. Additionally, scheduling a time that is convenient for all participants can be logistically challenging, particularly when dealing with busy or hard-to-reach populations.

Interpreting group dynamics

While the interaction in focus groups can generate rich insights, it can also complicate the interpretation of the data. The dynamics of the group discussion can influence individual responses, with dominant personalities potentially skewing the discussion or quieter participants holding back their views. It can be challenging for researchers to discern whether the views expressed represent the individual's true beliefs, the influence of the group dynamic, or a combination of both.

Depth of individual perspectives

Unlike other research methods, focus groups can provide a broad overview of group opinions and norms. However, they may not allow for the depth of understanding of individual experiences and perspectives that can be achieved through other qualitative methods, like one-on-one interviews. Time constraints and the need to ensure all participants have a chance to speak can limit the depth of exploration into individual views and experiences.

Transcription and data analysis

Other methods, such as surveys and interviews, generate data that is relatively easier to organize. Survey data is often divided into records, each representing a particular individual, while each and every interview has its own separate raw audio and corresponding transcript. A focus group has multiple participants who may contribute spontaneously to a discussion and even talk over each other. Transcribing these interactions for the purposes of coding and data analysis can be time-consuming as the researcher needs to discern between different voices and adequately represent these voices for empirical analysis.

Dynamics among group members can be challenging to document in transcripts. Photo by Cherrydeck.

Ethical considerations for focus groups

As with all other qualitative research methods, ethical issues such as informed consent and vulnerable populations are relevant to focus group discussions. However, there are also ethical considerations that are unique to focus groups that are worth thinking about.

Potential for unintended disclosure

In a focus group, there's a distinct possibility that participants may disclose more personal or sensitive information than they intended due to the dynamics of the group conversation. This presents an ethical challenge for researchers, as they have a responsibility to protect participants from potential harm, including emotional distress that might result from such disclosures. Researchers should be prepared to manage these situations by providing immediate support if necessary, reminding participants about the voluntary nature of their participation and their right to pass on any question, and following up with participants after the session if appropriate.

Confidentiality and privacy

Protecting the confidentiality and privacy of participants is another key ethical consideration. In focus groups, this can be more challenging than in one-on-one interviews because there are multiple participants. Researchers should ensure that participants understand the importance of confidentiality, which includes not disclosing any information revealed during the discussion with people outside the focus group. The researcher should also take steps to protect participants' privacy in the research report, such as by using pseudonyms or other de-identifying methods. Online focus groups present additional privacy considerations, such as data security and the potential for participants to be identified through their online profiles.

Managing sensitive topics

Focus group discussions can sometimes involve sensitive topics that may cause discomfort or distress for participants. Researchers need to be prepared to manage these situations with ethical awareness and sensitivity. This includes being aware of potential triggers, providing support or referrals to support services if necessary, and ensuring that the discussion remains respectful and safe for all participants.

Respect for diversity

Given the group nature of focus groups, respect for diversity is an important ethical consideration. This includes being sensitive to and respectful of differences in culture, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors among participants. Researchers should foster an inclusive and respectful discussion environment and should be mindful of potential power dynamics or biases that could influence the discussion.