Research Methods for Information Research

3. Some types of interview

3.1 The focus group: getting the right people

“There was precious little sign of any focus” complained a participant at one recent focus group. He is not alone – the focus group is taking over from the questionnaire survey as the most abused research instrument. This is a pity, because, if used effectively the focus group can be a powerful means of gathering information that is relevant for research.

There are two ‘secrets’ in producing the effective focus group – getting the right people together for the purpose and then getting the structure right. Both of these depend upon knowing what you are trying to achieve and then setting out to achieve it. (This point may seem obvious but it is still more honoured in the breach than in the observance.)

Some research requires that focus groups are made up of various categories of potential service user; in other cases the expertise of the participants is at a premium. How easy it is to get a representative group together depends on whether they see your research question as intrinsically interesting; if not, your best bet may be to link up with another activity that brings some or all of your target group together, or you may have to resort to offering incentives to participate. You may also wish to ‘pick off’ parts of your target group in different sessions if, for example, you want to involve high and low status people from the same hierarchical organisation. However, choosing the right activities may remove the need for this type of separation.

With expert groups, people will get involved if they see your topic as relevant and as a high enough priority (you will have to make the case and the initial approach carefully, explaining why they are the best people to get involved and what any benefits are to them). A way forward is to identify one or more ‘champions’ who will be sufficiently interested in your research to pave the way to other people. Setting up strategic focus groups requires a longer timescale to prepare the ground and to get into people’s diaries.