Preparing for a Focus Group

Preparing for a Focus Group

This module describes the steps involved in preparing to conduct a focus group.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the necessary steps to prepare to conduct a focus group
  • Describe how to structure a focus group
  • Describe how to recruit and select participants
  • Explain the role of the moderator and how to select a moderator


In order to prepare to conduct a focus group, the researcher must first have a good understanding of the entire focus group process. The following video, An Overview of the Process of Conducting a Focus Group, provides a comprehensive review of the focus group process with an emphasis on preparation.

Once the researcher has decided on the type or format of the focus group, it will be important to spend considerable time carefully planning the remainder of the details. One of the most important aspects of that planning is the selection of participants. Focus group research typically involves interviewing more than one group to gain a variety of perspectives. The researcher will need to consider the make-up of these groups when selecting participants. Focus groups commonly have 6-10 participants although some researchers will go as low as four and as high as twelve or fifteen. The key to selecting participants is the homogeneity of members of the group. When the group is homogenous, it levels the playing field among members which reduces inhibitions and increases the likelihood that members will discuss the topic freely. Selection criteria for the individual focus groups in a research project may be based on a variable such as gender, age, power, cliques, social status or education level. To understand why this important, consider a focus group of employees and supervisors. Would the employees speak candidly in the presence of their supervisors? The focus groups would yield more valuable information if the employees and supervisors were in separate focus group discussions.

After determining the composition of the focus groups, members will need to be recruited. The participants may be recruited in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Nomination or word of mouth – Ask key individuals that understand the topic to nominate people they think would make good participants and who may be known for their ability to respectfully share their opinions.
  • Random selection – If all the participants come from a large, but well-defined group, names may be drawn randomly until the desired number of participants is reached. For example, this would work well when wanting a sample of the student body on a college campus.
  • Members of the same group – There may already be an existing group from which it would be logical to pull participants. Examples may include a club or an organization, such as a PTO.
  • Similar roles and/or job titles – Participants may be recruited from groups of individuals with similar roles and titles such as young accountants, older college professors, mothers of twins, and so forth.
  • Volunteers – If the topic is broad and the selection criteria are not restrictive, it may be possible to recruit participants through newspaper ads, flyers, and social media.

Regardless of how the members of the group are targeted and recruited, it may be important and necessary to offer incentives to those who agree to participate. Incentives may include cash, gift cards, coupons, paid time off, or presents. The appropriate incentive is determined by the nature of the focus group. It is also recommended to over-invite by 10-20% to allow for no-shows.

The next step in the planning process is to choose the moderator.  Selecting an effective moderator is very important. A moderator should have some knowledge of the topic to assist in engaging participants. Moderators must also have good time-management skills, yet they must be flexible and allow the conversation to develop. For group members to speak freely, the moderator must have good interpersonal skills, must be a good listener, and must be non-judgmental. The role of the moderator is to ask the questions, probe for details, monitor the time limit, encourage all members to participate, and keep the conversation on track and moving forward. In a research project, the moderator is often the researcher. However, if the researcher could potentially introduce biases, it is best to select a more neutral moderator.

Finally, there are number of key details related to planning the event itself that must be addressed in order for the focus group to be productive.

  • The duration of the focus group must be determined. Suggested time frames range from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours, with 1.5 hours being typical.
  • Determine a time of day that is most convenient for the group members.
  • Determine a comfortable, inviting location for the focus group to meet. It should be easy to find and parking should be available.
  • Reduce potential barriers by offering interpreter services and child care services when necessary.
  • Arrange for the audio/visual equipment necessary to tape the discussion.
  • The location should allow for comfortable, circular seating allowing participants to face one another. The personal space of the group members should be respected and therefore, the size of the location should be large enough to allow members to spread out.
  • Refreshments are commonly offered during a focus group and appreciated by members.


Suggested Readings

Bloor, M. (2001). Focus groups in social research. Sage.
Gibbs, A. (1997). Focus groups. Social research update, 19(8), 1-8.
Greenbaum, T. L. (1998). The handbook for focus group research. Sage.
Kamberelis, G., & Dimitriadis, G. (2005). Focus groups. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research-Third Edition. Sage Publications, 20020, 887-908.
Kitzinger, J. (1994). The methodology of focus groups: the importance of interaction between research participants. Sociology of health and illness, 16(1), 103-121.
Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2009). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Sage.
Litosseliti, L. (2003). Using focus groups in research. A&C Black.
Morgan, D. L. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research (Vol. 16). Sage.
Morgan, D. L. (1996). Focus groups. Annual review of sociology, 129-152.
Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., & Sinagub, J. M. (1996). Focus group interviews in education and psychology. Sage.

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