Research Methods for Information Research

3. Some types of interview

3.2 The focus group: getting the right structure

The two key elements in running focus groups that work are setting up the conditions that enable people to concentrate on the job in hand and choosing the right activities. Both of these concerns are squarely in the territory of the trainer and advice should be sought from good trainers, particularly about choosing what to do – they will have a huge repertoire of structured activities to call upon. In talking to trainers it is important to remember the main difference between a research focus group and a professional development event. Your main concern is to pick the brains of your participants rather than to give them a positive learning experience, although the two are by no means mutually exclusive, particularly if you are inviting ‘outside’ experts to apply their knowledge in ‘your’ research area.

Turning to the activities, too many so-called focus groups rely upon committee-style discussion based on an agenda of more or less well-formulated questions. Bearing in mind that the research focus group is designed to gather research-relevant information, a general rule might be ‘the less opportunity for unstructured discussion the better’. There are literally thousands of group activities available that have been designed to gather, prioritise and restructure information. (One compendium for trainers runs to more than twenty volumes.) Some options include:

  • card sort activities using pre-prepared concept cards or participant-generated post-its to select and reject, sort and prioritise, or make models with ideas. Many of these entail small group activity leading to plenary discussion focussed on the issues emerging from the work
  • small group generation of cartoons, diagrams, posters or bullet points encapsulating their responses to carefully worded questions. Again, these provide opportunities for plenary exploration of issues, but there is also scope for getting small groups to explain their ideas to each other (tape the discussions), or for them to write in sufficient detail for the next group to be able to understand and add to what the first group produced (doing your recording job for you)
  • structured brainstorming (not a free for all) involving systematic pooling of individually generated ideas. The steps are usually variants on ‘consider a research question individually’, ‘think individually and write down what you think’, ‘systematically collect the results’, ‘discuss meanings’, ‘sort the results as a group’, and ‘discuss the most important points emerging’.

All of these approaches can be used successfully, depending on whether your aim at a particular point in the discussion group is to spark focussed discussion, capture people’s knowledge or generate ideas. Unlike general discussions, they will all give you concrete information which has been fully endorsed by the participants.