What is it?
Focus group research is a way of collecting qualitative information by engaging a small number of people in an informal group discussion. The contemporary focus group interview generally involves 8 to 12 individuals who discuss a particular topic - the focus - under the direction of a professional moderator. His/her role in this regard is not of an interviewer, but rather someone who promotes and moderates the interaction and assures that the discussion remains on the topic of interest. Given its nature, focus groups enable the researcher to collect information regarding both verbal and non-verbal communication between participants, on a social interaction context. A typical focus group session will last 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours.
When to use it?
Focus group research is particularly suited to:
- Study topics that are determined or influenced by group dynamics or social and cultural interactions: one key point when using focus group rests in the idea that the focus group participants will provide something that could not be obtained by interviewing them individually.
- When in-depth information is more important than the ability to generalize to a larger population.
- Obtain general background information about a topic of interest.
- Generate (new) research hypotheses that can be submitted to further research and testing using more quantitative approaches (e.g., surveys).
- Stimulate new ideas and concepts, based on the idea that a social interaction context might facilitate people to express views that otherwise they would not.
- Diagnose potential problems and/or the potential of new or existent communication messages, strategies, services or products.
- Learn how people talk about the topic of interest: this can provide input for the subsequent development of questionnaires, survey instruments, or other methods that can be used for further research.
- Interpret previously obtained quantitative results.
The use of focus groups provides a number of advantages relative to other types of research, namely:
- Provides a range of communicative information that arises in a more natural form. The open response format of focus groups allows the individuals to respond in their own words, using their own categorizations and perceived associations. Also, compared to one-to-one interviews, focus group research typically include a wider range of communicative processes and enable to explore how these are advanced, elaborated and negotiated in a social context.
- It is a very flexible method. It can be used to examine a wide range of topics with a variety of individuals and in a variety of settings. Also, it can be used as a stand-alone qualitative method, or combined with more quantitative techniques as part of a mixed-method approach.
- Opportunity to interact directly with individuals. This provides opportunities for clarification and probing of responses, and researchers can observe nonverbal responses (e.g., gestures, smiles) that may supplement or contradict verbal communication.
- Multiple individuals can view the focus group sessions either while is being conducted or by reviewing video or audiotape of the group session. This is useful for creating a common understanding of an issue or a problem.
- Usually, results are easy to understand. Researchers and decision-makers can readily understand the verbal responses of most participants, which is not always the case with quantitative data that require complex statistical analyses.
- Appropriate for collecting information from individuals who are not particularly literate.
Disadvantages and limitations
Focus groups have some disadvantages and limitations relative to other types of research, namely:
- Results could have low generalizability to larger populations. Given the usual small and unrepresentative sample of participant, the convenience nature of most focus group recruiting practices, and the influence of the responses from other members of the group the generalization of results is not appropriate.
- Data is voluminous, relatively unstructured and subjective. This makes summary analysis and interpretation of results difficult and a very time-consuming process.
- Data subject to limited quantification and not appropriate for comparing groups. It is difficult to make a good theoretical case for aggregating data across a number of diverse groups or for making direct comparisons. The unstructured and qualitative nature of the data limits statistical analysis.
- Moderating a focus group is a skilled technique that requires training and practice.
- Compared to interviews, it requires more in terms of sampling management. It can be difficult to recruit and bring together the appropriate participants.
- Not suitable to study sensitive or controversial social issues. Given its interactive and collective nature, focus group are not particularly appropriate to discuss a sensitive topic that may originate conflict within the group or cause stress and anxiety to the participants. However, focus groups can be used if the main goal is to study the social dynamics of a sensitive or controversial topic and the participants are recruited because they belong to a very specific group of interest regarding the topic and are previously informed about it.