Focus Group Fundamentals for Government Programs
This is an introduction for federal government program managers on how to collect customer feedback via focus groups. Focus groups are moderated, small-group discussions where a pre-selected group of people (usually current, past or potential customers) discuss their preferences, attitudes and opinions about products or services. While this fact sheet focuses on in-person focus groups, they can also be held over the phone. Feedback from focus groups is qualitative, and is often combined with quantitative feedback to inform customer service decisions.
- Why would you conduct a focus group?
- How can you use the feedback gathered during focus groups?
- Can focus group results can be biased?
- What are some limitations of focus group feedback?
- What criteria should you use when recruiting participants?
- How can you identify potential participants?
- How many people should be in each focus group?
Designing a focus group
- What is the typical format of a focus group?
- How long should each focus group last?
- What should be included in a focus group script?
- Should you pre-test your focus group script?
- Should key stakeholders observe focus groups?
- What kind of follow-up work will you need to do?
- What do you need to run a live focus group?
- What are the major cost considerations?
- Should you pay focus group participants?
- Should you collect personally identifiable information?
- Do you need a consent/waiver form?
- Will you need to get approval for focus groups under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA)?
Focus groups provide more detailed and nuanced feedback than surveys, and are particularly helpful for capturing general preferences, attitudes and opinions, testing agency assumptions, and collecting responses to current or future offerings. Focus groups are also useful for collecting feedback from individuals who are not currently customers. Examples of focus group questions include:
a. How would you characterize your experiences interacting with our agency? What can we improve?
b. Do you use the web or phone to interact with our agency? What drives that choice?
c. If we put a kiosk at your local post office, and you could use that kiosk to apply for benefits, would you? Why or why not?
Focus group feedback can give you a better understanding of customer perceptions and opinions, provide more information about known problem areas, and help you gather responses to new products or services. In addition, focus groups can be used to uncover problem areas or to investigate a problem in more detail.
Yes, so you need to be aware of pitfalls. Some common ways that focus groups can be biased include:
- Group dynamics. Group dynamics that arise within the group can sometimes yield unreliable results. Common challenges include the dominance of a handful of individuals in the discussion, and reluctance for individuals to express differing opinions. In addition, interpersonal relationships can impact an individual’s willingness to speak (e.g., if a focus group includes an employee and his or her boss, the employee may hesitate to share his or her true opinions). It is helpful if focus group participants do not already know each other.
- Sensitive or controversial topics. Focus groups on sensitive or controversial topics often yield unreliable feedback, since individuals can be uncomfortable speaking up in a group environment.
- Moderator bias. An untrained and/or biased moderator can bias the discussion and lead participant responses.
- Question design. Focus group questions should be designed to elicit unbiased responses. It can be helpful to contact a focus group expert when designing your questions.
- Selective feedback analysis. When analyzing focus group feedback, it is important to conduct a balanced review and highlight all findings, not just those results that support a particular point of view.
Because focus groups include a very small sample size, and participation is not random, the feedback you collect may not be representative of the opinions of your entire customer base. Focus group results are always qualitative. In addition, because of the relatively small number of participants, individual opinions can take on greater weight than is appropriate. When running a focus group, be aware of the anecdotal nature of group responses, and combat this by running multiple focus groups or by recruiting the maximum number of participants.
Selection criteria should be informed both by your overall goals, and by the characteristics that make different types of customers behave differently. Try to recruit participants from your target audience. For example, to find out how you can increase the use of online services, recruit participants who are not early adopters of technology; or to find out more about a specific demographic (e.g., youth, Hispanic or rural), recruit participants from the target group. Some organizations leverage customer panels (standing panels of customers who have opted-in to provide feedback on an ongoing basis) to identify participants.
Once you have determined your criteria, you can create a list of prescreening questions, which will help you identify potential participants who fit the specific criteria for your focus group. Remember that participation in focus groups is voluntary. Professional recruiters or focus group facilities frequently have lists of individuals who have volunteered to participate in focus groups. You can also use internal customer lists (as allowed by privacy laws), purchase a list from a third party, or leverage a publicly available list (such as a voter registration list). Without a list, you can do random digit dialing of phone numbers to recruit participants (generally challenging and becoming more so due to decline in land lines) or intercept recruiting (where individuals are recruited in-person in well-trafficked areas like malls).
The ideal focus group size varies from 6-12 participants, with 8-10 being average. Too many participants can be difficult to facilitate, and too few may not provide adequate feedback. Organizations often run multiple focus groups in order to raise the number of participants, compare feedback, and target different demographics.
Designing a focus group
Focus groups usually take the form of moderated group discussions, with 6-12 participants, led by a facilitator. While most focus groups are in-person, some take place over the phone. In addition, one or more observers takes notes but has minimal direct interaction in the session. Typically, for in-person focus groups, participants are seated so they can face one another in a comfortable environment. Flip charts or notepads can be used. The facilitator follows a script, with a set of questions designed to elicit feedback that meets the goals and purpose of the focus group (e.g., to find out why some customers prefer phone over online customer service, for example).
Each focus group typically starts with an introduction by the facilitator, who explains the purpose of the focus group and sets the tone. The facilitator then follows the script and questions, and he or she can add additional, follow-up questions as needed. The session concludes with a closing statement and a thank you to the participants.
While the length of each focus group can vary depending on how many questions are needed to meet focus group goals, on average focus groups last between 1-2 hours.
Scripts are designed to help facilitate the focus group. The script should include the introduction and the close, as well as well-written, targeted questions that elicit the targeted feedback you need. Scripts are also helpful for keeping time. Most importantly, following a script ensures that the same questions are asked across all focus groups, to provide consistency to compare answers across focus groups.
Yes. It is useful to test the focus group script questions to ensure that the responses yield useful information.
While it can be helpful to have key stakeholders observe focus groups, if they are not note-takers, they should not be in the room, to minimize distraction. Focus group facilities often have rooms with one-way mirrors, so observers can watch the discussion). Let key stakeholders know that opinions expressed within focus groups can sometimes be highly anecdotal, so it is important not to draw conclusions from a brief observation. If key stakeholders have questions that come up during the session, these can be written down and handed/sent to the moderator to avoid disrupting the session.
After you've conducted the analysis, compile your findings into a report that is easy for the key stakeholders to understand. A clear, organized report will help key stakeholders to take findings seriously, and support follow-up plans to address any issues or problems.
At a minimum, a focus group will require: a moderator to ask questions and run the session; an observer to take notes; and focus group participants. There are firms that specialize in running focus groups. They have expertise in putting together focus groups with trained facilitators, one-way mirrors for observing the session without disruption, video taping and recording capabilities, and expertise in analyzing the sessions and summarizing the results. While recording or videotaping is not necessary for every focus group, it can be useful to ensure that participants’ comments are accurately reflected in the analysis.
It is possible to conduct a focus group on any budget, since costs for focus groups vary greatly. Participant recruitment is typically the biggest cost driver, and the more narrowly you define the required participants, the more costly it becomes to find participants who meet your requirements. In addition, participants are usually paid to participate in focus groups. Other costs can include the moderator and the location, as well as video taping, recording, and transcribing comments. Costs will also rise as you hold more focus group sessions with a greater number of participants.
For agencies with limited budgets, out-of-pocket costs can be low. Some organizations leverage internal contact lists to identify and recruit participants. Other cost-saving ideas include using conference room space in your building instead of renting space, and foregoing video taping and transcription, and instead relying on observer's notes. Consider talking to a focus group expert to identify where you can cut costs without compromising feedback. Cost alone should not be a deterrent, if focus group feedback can help you improve customer service delivery at your agency.
Focus group participants are often paid. Fees vary, based on geography and the demographic of your focus groups. Contact your agency’s legal department to see if there are any restrictions.
Some general demographic information about focus group participants can be collected in order to understand how they align to your customer segments. In addition, contact information is often collected to pay participants, but this must be done to be in compliance with privacy laws and related regulations.
Participants typically sign a consent form indicating that they understand how the information they share will be used, and that you will protect their privacy to the extent available by law. Audio or video recording your focus group sessions requires permission as well. Contact your legal department for more information.
Approval for focus groups is required if you include 10 or more individuals in each focus group or across a series of focus groups. If your focus group feedback is to be used for improving service or productions, then these focus groups will likely not fall under the five-day fast-track PRA assessment process. Contact your agency’s PRA officer to find out more.
- General tips and a sample script from the U.S. Geological Society
- National Institute on Aging pilot program report (PDF, 326 KB, 40 pages, August 2006)
- Focus group basics from New York State Teachers Center
- Focus group basics from Berkeley (PDF, 59 KB, 4 pages, September 2006)
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