Published on January 25, 2009
Guidelines for Focus Groups By Dawn Drake Location Face-to-face is preferred for focus groups so that you can read and respond to • body language and benefit from the energy of live group interactions. However, sales reps don’t like to be out of the field, especially for something they do not consider to be important to them. You are trying to find a way to gain participation in something that is important to you, so it would be helpful to minimize the imposition on them or reward them in some way that they value for participating. This means that they would probably be unwilling to travel specifically to • participate in a discussion, and they may not want to take time out even for a local or virtual event. If you can go to them, the best bet for getting participants is to tie the focus group in with some other activity or meeting that will take them out of the field anyway. Another possibility might be to tie the discussion in with something like a dinner or other networking event. Time Face-to-face: 1.5 to 2 hrs. This allows time for the opening and closing • comments and discussion of 4-6 questions (If they generate a lot of discussion; if there aren’t a lot of discussion, you might get through 8-10 questions). You’re unlikely to maintain attention and interest any longer unless the topic is of great importance to the participants. Web Meeting: Better to limit the meeting to a maximum of 1.5 hrs. to maintain • attention and interest. Groups Usually an active focus group will need about 8-10 people to ensure a variety of • ideas while giving everyone an opportunity to participate. I’d recommend going on the low end for Web Meeting. Try to group people of similar attitudes. That is, don’t mix people who are • enthusiastic users with people who are negative about the topic. Mixing of people you expect to have strongly opposing views could convey that you have a hidden agenda of using the supporters to “sell” the non-supporters. Better to learn what you can from each group (separately) about why they feel the way they do. You are likely to get the most active participation, especially on Web meeting, if • the people in the group have some familiarity with each other. However, they shouldn’t be too close (i.e., working together). You need different viewpoints, and you’re less likely to get that if people are too close. The groups should consist of volunteers who are known to speak up about their • opinions without becoming belligerent. Guidelines for Focus Groups © 2008, Dawn Drake Page 1 of 4
Preparation Clearly define what information you want to obtain from the focus group. • Define your questions. Word-craft them carefully. Even if you decide during • the meeting that you need to change it, having clearly thought out what you want to know will help you stay on track. If different people are conducting focus groups, stick to the script for each basic question so you can compare apples to apples in the final review. However, you can and should explore topics feely during discussions, as long as you keep your purpose in mind so you don’t run out of time for the high priority questions on the list. o There should be 5-6 planned questions that you expect to generate significant discussion. You are unlikely to be able to cover more than that and also follow the relevant paths that come up during the meeting. o Start by brainstorming and then identify the questions that will get you the best information, then prioritize them in order of importance. You’ll want to ask the most important and productive ones, but you also need to allow a couple of “warm-up” questions at the start to get people comfortable and involved. o Estimate how long each question will take to discuss. This should be used as a guideline during the meeting to pace the discussion. When the focus group relates to something the participants are familiar with, • send the list of questions to the participants in advance of the meeting. This gives them time to think about them so they can provide better information. It may also inspire them to discuss the questions will their colleagues and, therefore, bring more information to the table. Plan to establish a relaxed atmosphere. If face-to-face, it would be beneficial to • have some refreshments in the room. You should have a facilitator to guide the discussion into the desired areas, and • at least one notetaker to capture the comments. If at all possible, the facilitator should NOT try to take notes—you will lose momentum if the participants have to wait while their comments are recorded. You can also record the meeting as a reference if there are questions about what people said. However, most recordings are never used. Plan your agenda, e.g.: • o Welcome Introduce facilitator and co-facilitator (note-taker) o If session is being recorded, advise the participants o o Review agenda o Explain what you hope to gain from the focus group (the goal) o Review ground rules for the meeting (How will you be managing the discussion? This is especially important in the Web meeting focus groups. An effective technique is often to use a round-robin approach to get all input, then open the floor to further comments about each topic before moving to the next one.) o Introductions (participants, if they don’t know each other) Guidelines for Focus Groups © 2008, Dawn Drake Page 2 of 4
o Demonstration of the tool or product to be discussed, as appropriate o Discussion o Wrap up If you are face-to-face, set up the chairs in a U-shaped or circular arrangement • so everyone can see each other easily. Provide name tags if people don’t know each other. If you are using recording equipment, check to make sure it is working. • Conducting the meeting Allow time for people to vent (maybe 10-15 min) if they need to! It may not • happen, but if they are feeling frustration or pressure about a change or any relevant issues, they may need to let off steam before they can talk effectively about what you want to discuss. If this happens, just listen, explain that you understand and that you will take the message back but there is nothing you can do about it in this meeting. Make note of the points in a way that they know you are making notes and then direct the conversation back to the purpose of the meeting. Be sure to: • o Keep the discussion focused on the questions being considered (after the initial venting, if it happens). o Maintain momentum. When participants are running out of things to say or are starting to repeat themselves, move on. o Get closure on each question. Summarize the comments/suggestions and then present the next question. o Record accurate comments. It’s best to record comments exactly as they are stated; if the notetaker needs to paraphrase (often necessary just to keep up during a discussion), confirm with the person who made the comment(s) that are being paraphrased that what is recorded accurately reflects the original intent. When presenting questions: • o Ask the question as it was pre-defined. You have presumably spent time fine- tuning the questions so they ask what you want to know. Don’t throw away the effort. o Allow time for each participant to think about their answer (the advance notice of questions is an advantage here). o Obtain initial responses from each person. o Open floor to further discussion. o Be aware of where you are in the meeting, time-wise, so that you don’t spend too much time on a single question. If you are using a Web meeting, you often need a more structured way to gain • participation than you might need in a face-to-face situation. Make sure the participants know how to “gain the floor.” A good method is to pose a question and then call on each person individually to Guidelines for Focus Groups © 2008, Dawn Drake Page 3 of 4
respond. Using a Web meeting with a shared desktop or Word application, record their responses as you would on a flip chart in a classroom. When everyone has contributed, open to floor to further comments, building on ideas, etc. The same technique can be used in face-to-face, but it may be less necessary because people can see when another person is about to speak or to stop speaking, so the flow may be more orderly. Ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate equally. Don’t let a few people • dominate the discussion. As the facilitator, do NOT “hype” the tool or product being discussed! Maintain • neutrality about the tool in order to get THEIR opinions. If you come across as “selling” it, they are more likely to agree with you and may withhold their concerns. Do NOT defend, justify, or explain decisions that have been made in relation to • tools, sales policies, or anything else. The facilitator’s role is to listen and gather information, not to persuade or win converts. After the meeting If the meeting was recorded, check to make sure the recording equipment • worked. Summarize and transcribe your notes so that they are clear and orderly while • they are still fresh. In addition to comments and quotes, also make notes about when and where the session occurred, who attended, what the “feel” of the meeting was, topics that came up during the venting (if there were any), any surprises or significant comments or events that occurred that need to be remembered or that might have influenced the participants’ attitudes and comments. Send thank-you notes to the participants. • Guidelines for Focus Groups © 2008, Dawn Drake Page 4 of 4
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