Conducting a Focus Group

Conducting a Focus Group

The following module will describe appropriate techniques and procedures to use when conducting an effective focus group.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the process and steps involved in conducting a focus group interview
  • Explain the role of the moderator and assistant moderator
  • List tips and guidelines commonly used to ensure an effective interview session


The previous modules in this series have focused on preparing to conduct a focus group interview by selecting a moderator, selecting participants, choosing a setting, developing a list of questions and taking care of numerous other details. It is now time to focus on the interview session itself. Following is a breakdown of the interview session and a discussion of the important components that are necessary to ensure an effective session.

The Introduction: The first few moments of the focus group discussion are critical to set the tone and develop a level of comfort and trust between the moderator(s) and the participants. The introductory remarks should include a welcome, introductions, an overview of the topic and purpose of the focus group, and the ground rules for the discussion. It is recommended that these remarks are scripted in advance to ensure that they are delivered by the moderator in a professional manner and no details are overlooked. This is also the appropriate time to have participants sign consent forms if necessary.   The consent form should briefly outline the topic and state that the participant is choosing to participate voluntarily. It is also recommended that focus group discussions are recorded to allow for a more thorough review of the data collected and to preserve the integrity of the data. If it is being recorded, the consent form must also declare that the session is being recorded and by what means. A short demographic survey may also be given at this time and may prove useful in data analysis.

The Role of the Moderator(s): The focus group session formally begins as the moderator asks the first question and begins engaging participants. Many focus group sessions will have a moderator and an assistant moderator. The moderator will interact directly with the participants, ask the questions and facilitate discussion. The role of the assistant moderator is to record the session and take detailed notes. The moderator can be critical in eliciting information from the participants. Following is a list of the responsibilities of the moderator:

  • To create an atmosphere of trust, openness and mutual respect.
  • To ensure that every participant feels that his or her thoughts and comments are valuable to the group discussion.
  • To keep the participants on task and focused on the discussion, managing the flow of the discussion and adhering to the pre-determined time limits.
  • To probe participants and encourage them to respond in more detail if necessary.
  • To tactfully deal with challenging participants and keep the discussion moving and the atmosphere positive.
  • To paraphrase or summarize long or complex answers to provide clarification for others in the group and to ensure that the comments were accurately interpreted.
  • To remain neutral and refrain from commenting on a response, agreeing, disagreeing or displaying any body language that may send a message to participants in regard to the moderator’s personal views or thoughts on the topic.
  • To thank all participants at the end of the focus group discussion.

Note-taking: The assistant moderator is responsible for recording the session and taking notes that include body language and other visual cues that may not be captured by the recording. Clarity and consistency are critical in the note-taking process and some researchers will use a standardized form to ensure completeness. It should be assumed that others may view the notes from the session and therefore, detailed notes are important. The note-taker must especially be watchful for the following:

  • Quotes – Well-said statements that effectively illustrate a point of view. It may be necessary to paraphrase and indicate that the response should be reviewed on the recording. The speaker should be identified in some way in the notes, even if it is just by initials.
  • Themes – Key points that may develop as the discussion unfolds and may be referred to repeatedly. The note-taker must watch for these themes or common threads throughout the discussion.
  • Follow up questions – The assistant moderator may see the need for clarification as he or she is taking notes. They may be allowed to ask such follow up questions at the end of the session.
  • Big ideas or new insights – New ideas or insights sometimes emerge in a session as a note-taker is listening and recording thoughts. The new insights may be helpful in analysis later.
  • Other factors – Passion of the participants, body language, non-verbal cues and activity that could indicate the level of interest, support or agreement of the participants.

The moderator and assistant moderator should have a debriefing session immediately following the focus group discussion. This will give them the opportunity to compare thoughts, review the notes and add any additional comments that may be lost in data analysis if not recorded following the session.


Suggested Readings

Bloor, M. (2001). Focus groups in social research. Sage.
Gibbs, A. (1997). Focus groups. Social research update, 19(8), 1-8.
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.

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