Marc My Words: The Power of Focus Groups

Are you conducting a needs assessment, evaluating course effectiveness, checking the usability of an eLearning program, or any other analysis activity? Focus groups can be invaluable, not just for data collection, but also for insight. Not just the “what,” but the “why.”

What’s the value of focus groups?

Questionnaires reach lots of people and help spot trends. They can provide more detail, if a respondent chooses to provide comments (assuming they respond to the survey at all). With focus groups, you can dig deeper, follow-up on those trends and get the back-story on an issue. You can identify consensus, disagreement, confusion, motivation, and readiness—all extremely difficult to do with just a typical survey. Focus groups provide the richness and context that enable better decision-making.

When should you use focus groups?

Anytime you need a greater level of understanding. In the world of learning solutions, use focus groups to flesh out stakeholder priorities and learner needs, test eLearning solutions, better understand participant’s reactions to a program, assess perceived benefits to individuals, groups, and the whole organization, and plan future direction and program improvements.

How often should you use focus groups?

The argument that surveys are far less expensive than focus groups only works when focus groups are overused. Use them strategically. If there is universal agreement about how a process or skill should be taught, for example, using a focus group for needs assessment can be wasteful. However, if there is disagreement on a process or multiple approaches to a problem, or if you are embarking on something new, a focus group can help show the way. Focus groups can mitigate the risk of launching a faulty eLearning program by running test sessions with prospective learners and then asking them about their experiences. End-of-course evaluations can be augmented occasionally with a focus group to provide a deeper understanding of potential issues identified in the survey, but you certainly wouldn’t run one after every course. Bottom line, if you have focus groups in your data-collection toolkit, you’ll begin to recognize when to best use then—when typical surveys, observations, and interviews are not enough.

Who should be in a focus group?

Clearly, you want to get diverse input from all key stakeholders: SMEs, instructors, workers, front-line managers, specialists (e.g., HR, IT, marketing, training), executives, and customers, to name a few. But should you mix them in a single group? That’s a tough but important question. Look at it in two ways:

  1. Supervisors and subordinates: Generally speaking, mixing levels can be risky. It can inhibit honest conversation or lead to the higher-level people dominating the group. Now there are always cases where mixing levels can work, and in those cases, some helpful outcomes may emerge. But if you’re not sure, you probably should avoid this, at least at the start. A better way might be to run separate focus groups where you ask similar questions.
  2. Different roles: What about putting SMEs in the same session with workers or instructors, or putting marketing managers in the same focus group as customers? Again, the best approach is primarily based on the culture of the groups and your organization. Putting people with different missions, skills, and agendas in the same room can yield enormous insight, but it can also result in counterproductive behavior. If this is the case, try separate groups first, then identify those participants who appear better suited to working with diverse perspectives and run a second set of focus groups with them.

How should you facilitate focus groups?

Carefully. In most cases you will need a facilitator who is not encumbered with note taking (have a separate person do that). Unless you have permission from everyone, don’t record the session, and always be sure to maintain the confidentiality of participants’ comments. If they get even a little sense that you are “collecting dirt,” or otherwise prying on behalf of management, you’re through. If you have a bias to a solution, don’t show it. Ask lots of questions and follow-up based on what you hear. Don’t be afraid to go “off-script” if there is value in moving in a new direction (but don’t forget to come back to your main themes). Encourage dialogue between participants. Allow enough time for people to make their points and then move on. Remember, you are trying to collect data, not run a debate. Be prepared to shut down (politely) any participant who pontificates too much. Do not take focus-group lightly. If you haven’t done it before, ask someone to coach you who has.

Should focus groups get questions in advance?

That’s up to you. It’s always a good idea to give your focus group an idea of what will be discussed and what is needed from them. You could send them a short statement about the issue and perhaps some, but not all, of the questions (consider sending “starter” questions to stimulate their thinking).

How many people should be in a focus group, and how long should it last?

One or two people do not make a focus group; that’s an interview. Even three or four participants may be too few. You need enough to generate great conversations. If you have that, you’re good. At the other end, if you have too many people, you won’t be able to give everyone an opportunity to speak, and if you do, you’ll likely get a lot of redundant remarks. Think about it this way: if you were to run a good team meeting where you get lots of input and have time for discussion, how many could you handle? As for time, two hours is probably the max (better to have multiple sessions than one long drawn-out one), but don’t be afraid to end early if you got what you came for. And never go over your time; it’s a sign of disrespect for your participants.

What about interviews?

Interviews have great value, especially with key people. You might find that an interview results in a need for more data from a follow-up focus group, or that a focus group itself prompts a need for a follow-up interview. Planned well, interviews and focus groups, used in combination, are more powerful than either used separately.

Should focus groups make decisions?

Probably not. Abdicating decision-making responsibility to the group as an easy way out of a dilemma is one of the key mistakes people make with focus groups. Too many companies, politicians, and yes, trainers, have planted their flag solely on the basis of what they heard in a focus group, with disastrous results.

Data collection, analysis, and decision-making: all are critical, but they are significantly different in purpose, design, implementation, and responsibility. As you think about your focus-group strategy, keep this clearly in mind. 

Learn more

Here’s a short and interesting article by Ross Tartell on focus groups. There’s plenty more on the web.

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