Research Methods for Information Research

3. Some types of interview

3.3 The focus group: some activities

Here is an example of a card sort activity used in reviewing a health library service. In this case, we targeted various groups of staff and consulted administrators to find out where and when these people met as part of their normal work. Then we contacted the meeting convenors and asked for half an hour at their next meeting. The offer we made was that if they gave us time to help review future library service provision we would guarantee two things – we would finish within half an hour and people would find the activity interesting.

On the day we would arrive with a set of 25 cards, each identifying a specific library service or aspect of provision, such as:

“Ready access to photocopy facilities when studying/researching”


“Being able to browse contents pages of journals and request copies of articles of interest.”

The tasks from then on are to:

  1. Commandeer an empty table (or clear one) and position it so that people can stand round it.
  2. Explain our purpose and invite people to help us identify priorities for library development in relation to the next three years.
  3. If the group size is appropriate (5-12 people):
    • deal out the cards to the participants as though they are playing cards
    • explain that the table will used to prioritise, with the top end as high priority and the bottom as low priority
    • ask people to put down ‘their’ cards anywhere on the table according to their assessment of its priority
    • when this starts, tell them that they can put items beside cards that are already there but not move anything that is there.

This usually takes three or four minutes.

  1. Now ask all the participants to look at the card layout and challenge anything that they think is placed too high or low by turning it face down. If anyone is unsure about what a card means (since they all consist of short phrases) they should turn it over too.

This usually takes another three to four minutes and will result in about 5 to 8 cards turned over. The remainder of the session should be recorded (tape recorder or a colleague taking notes):

  1. Starting at the top of the table, turn over the highest face down item, read it out to the group and ask why it was turned over. You know that:
    • someone would like an explanation – in which case ask the group what they think it means, or
    • there are at least two views about the relative importance of the item – invite a discussion and see if you can get a group consensus about where the item should be placed
  2. Continue working down the table until all the items are face up.

By this stage you will have led a focussed discussion about priorities, concentrating entirely on areas of difference or lack of understanding. The participants will have been equipped with a set of concepts through which to consider library service priorities (probably for the first time ever). They will have agreed on a ranking list of priorities, to which you can fairly easily assign scores so that results from different groups can be compared. They will almost certainly have found the activity interesting – and you will have done the whole thing in half an hour or less. If the group finishes early, complete the task by asking them “If only one of these items could be addressed over the next three years, which should it be and why?”