Focus Groups: Everything You Need to Know

Focus Groups: Everything You Need to Know

Last Edited October 23, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in UX

There are many ways to conduct research when you are looking for information including data collection, surveys, interviews, focus groups, and more. Depending on your purpose, focus groups might be an adequate way for you to obtain information from consumers about your product or service and how you can make it better. Just like for all study approaches, it is important you understand what focus groups are and how they can be helpful, as well as the pros and cons of using this kind of research.

While each method serves a different purpose, focus groups can be a way to get information quickly from a larger sampling of consumers, whereas if you are thinking about conducting an interview, you would spend more time with one person and not get as much information. It would be more time consuming to conduct individual interviews with multiple people. In addition, a focus group is a way to obtain qualitative information instead of using a survey that gives you quantitative data.

Quantitative data can be very helpful in some situations, but getting qualitative data can be more beneficial when you would like to understand the behavior and opinions of consumers. Below is more information that can help you to understand if a focus group is the right kind of research for you.

focus groups everything you need to know

What Exactly is a Focus Group?

A focus group is a sampling of people—usually an average of 2-8 participants—that get together to have a discussion about a similar topic. The contributors can feed off and influence one another to give honest opinions and perspectives about the topic. The topic is generated by the party or organization looking to get information from consumers about a product, service, or topic that they would like to improve. For example, if a school superintendent is looking to improve the environment at an elementary school, he or she may choose to meet with a sample of students, boys and girls from different grade levels, to investigate what is going on in the school. In addition, he or she may be able to get some ideas from what students would like to see change.

The superintendent, in this case, would be the moderator. A moderator is someone who leads the conversation but must remain neutral to allow the participants to give honest and valid feedback. A moderator’s job is more closely discussed later on in this article. If a moderator were to sway the participants one way or the other, it might affect the results of the data collected during the focus group. Participants can freely discuss their opinions, views, and ideas to help resolve an issue.  A focus group usually can last from anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half.

What is Its Purpose?

The purpose of focus groups is to develop ideas or improve the quality of a service or product. A company may be looking for new ideas of how to reach a particular audience or how to solve a problem that is occurring with their product. It can assist in collecting information on why consumers react the way they do to the product or service. While a survey might be able to tell you that 75% of consumers polled are happy with the product, a focus group might be able to tell a researcher why 25% of participants are not happy with a product.

Focus groups can really help companies and businesses understand their consumers’ thoughts and opinions. This is called qualitative data. While it might be a little bit harder to analyze than quantitative data (numbers), it is certainly helpful when a business would like to improve upon their service or product. Its purpose is to get an outside perspective on this issue at hand. Sometimes a person who is not directly involved in the development of a service or product can give a different viewpoint on how to advance a product or service to the next level. It also allows the participants or consumers to feel they have a productive voice.

How to Conduct a Focus Group Interview and What Might Make it Successful?

To conduct a focus group, the researcher first must figure out what topic they want to target. Questions should be predetermined carefully, and a moderator would need to be hired. In addition, the research group would also need to pick the participants as well as a time and location. The moderator would then take over and lead the discussion.

In order to make a focus group successful, there are many aspects that should be taken into consideration by both the researchers and moderator.  It is very imperative that the environment during the discussion is comfortable for all contributors. This will allow everyone who partakes to feel comfortable enough to give their honest opinions. Without an honest and open discussion, the researchers may not obtain the information they hoped for—or the information may not be reliable.

The questions also must be carefully selected by the researchers. This is important because the questions should not be biased to sway the participants’ answers. It is also important that the researcher takes time to think about the order of questions. Questions should be asked in such an order that they build off of each other, but do not change the direction of the conversation abruptly.

A moderator has a very important job to make sure the conversation continues to flow, stays on topic, and that participants have the opportunity to elaborate on their thoughts. The more information that comes out in the discussion, the better. While the moderator is there to lead the discussion, they should also allow the participants to drive the dialogue in a different direction if necessary.

Finally, a focus group will gain successful information if the conversation is recorded. This might mean videotaping or voice recording, depending on the agreement between the researcher and participants. This is so that the researchers can analyze the discussion to find common trends based on what the contributors said throughout the discussion. Without a recording, it would be very difficult for a moderator to then go back and explain the findings to the researcher.  

When Should You Use This Type of Research Method?

This type of research method might not work all the time, but it does have its purpose for collecting research information when needed. Focus groups can be a great way for market researchers to better understand the consumers’ thoughts and opinions. It can help with current products that might need to be better understood or refined in order to be more useful to the public. It can also be used when a company or business is thinking about coming up with new products. Participants may help to generate new ideas for their prospective projects.

When a business is having a difficult time improving a product from within, having the outside ideas and perceptions may help to get the job done. Hoping to Improve a product or service that is not doing so well on the market can also be a time when a company uses focus groups to complete market research. It can be a good indication of why the product is not doing so well and what can be done to make it become more successful.

Focus groups can be used when more information needs to be collected than just interviewing to understand the perspective of a few individual responses. It also can be used instead of or in addition to a survey when more information is desired about the why or how.

Who Should Participate in the Discussion?

The size of the group is dependent on what the researcher is looking for. While it was mentioned before that the average group is between 2 and 8 people—sometimes as many as 15 participants can be involved in a focus group discussion at one time. Too little or too many contributors at one time may not generate valid or reliable data. Some researchers may choose to hold more than one discussion group to obtain more information.

Another important aspect to consider when thinking about who should participate is to get a sampling that will represent a variety of helpful information relating to the product or service being researched. Sometimes gender might play a role. For example, you might not want to hold a focus group discussing tampons and invite men to it. Their opinions would not be reliable because it is a product they do not use. In this case, a researcher may require a group full of women ranging from 18-50.

Age is another factor to consider when choosing participants. In that same case of a focus group discussion on tampons, it might not be in the best interest for someone over the age of 60 to participate as they may not have used the product in the last ten years. When considering who should participate in a discussion group, it is important to contemplate demographics such as gender, age, hierarchy, education, and other things that might influence a person’s opinion.

When conducting a focus group, it is vital to collect that demographic information from participants, but should not take too much time. A short form that collects that data at the beginning or end of the discussion should take no more than 3-5 minutes to fill out. It can factor into the information collected, but should not take over the discussion.

What Are the Advantages?

As mentioned before, focus groups are a great way to get information from consumers that is qualitative. This kind of data can be very helpful when you want to understand the why and how of what is happening in your business. For example, if you want to understand why a certain target group (think age or gender) does not use your product often, you will get powerful insight to your question. Besides, if your purpose of the discussion is to figure out ways you can market to a certain audience, then you can gain the perceptions of multiple people at once.

Many people who participate in a focus group are free to speak their mind because they most likely don’t have emotional ties to the rest of the group. As long as the environment is comfortable and allows the participants to express their opinions without feeling like they will be ridiculed, then you will gain honest and valid information that can help you to fulfill your purpose.

Since you are meeting with multiple people at once, it can be cost-effective because you are only needing to pay the moderator for one session. In contrast, if you are conducting interviews, you would have to pay the evaluator for many more hours since their task will be more time-consuming. Getting more information in a shorter amount of time is beneficial because you will have your data sooner and will be able to do what you need to in order to work towards your goals.

Another great advantage of conducting research via focus groups is that you are able to add questions or ask participants for more information as you go. When using surveys, you usually have participants fill out only the questions and do not have a chance to ask them for clarification or elaboration. A moderator is able to keep the discussion going and insert questions when necessary depending on what direction the conversation is taking.

What Are Some Disadvantages?

As with anything—there are always going to be disadvantages or shortcomings related to the type of research you are conducting. Some methods are going to be more beneficial than others depending on what kind of information the researcher is looking to accomplish. While a focus group can be a great way to gain information, they can be difficult and time-consuming to analyze.

It is very important that both the moderator and researcher are unbiased, but this might not always be the case. It is difficult for people to remain unbiased when they have such a strong opinion about a topic. Facilitators can have a difficult time staying neutral, and if participants are swayed, so are the results. This is one of the reasons it is so important to videotape or voice record the discussion. The researcher can include in their analysis whether or not the facilitator was able to remain unbiased during the discussion.

If you have even been part of a discussion in a class or large group, then you probably know that certain people will dominate the discussion while others might not be willing to speak up at all. This can also be a disadvantage of a focus group. Participants may be unevenly involved in the discussion. There may be one person who is not shy and speaks up a little too much. When this happens, it can be very intimidating to some of the other quieter contributors.

The dynamics of the group may sway the discussion one way or the other. It does fall on the moderator to properly handle this, but it can be very difficult. Also, when analyzing the results, nonverbal responses may be difficult to read. If the discussion was just voice recorded and not video recorded, then that body language may be impossible to capture.

What is the Job of a Moderator, and What Makes a Good Moderator?

A moderator is the person who leads the discussion. It might seem like an easy job, but can be a very difficult one. A moderator, or facilitator, must be able to remain neutral, even in heated discussions. Their job is to keep the conversation flowing by asking questions that were predetermined by the researcher. They should also have people skills in order to make the participants feel comfortable enough to give their honest opinions. A moderator can take notes of body language and other important pieces of the conversation to share with the researcher later. They should have the conversation skills to summarize confusing comments in order to keep the rest of the participants focused and on topic.

A good moderator must be able to multi-task. All at the same time, they should be able to keep the discussion going, pay attention to time, read social cues, come up with questions on the spot, remain neutral and remember that at the end of the day, the people participating are clients and need to leave happy. They also must be able to help the dynamics of the group to stay as even as possible. When someone is too dominant, they need to be able to get the quieter contributors more involved. A moderator has a very serious and sometimes difficult job when leading a discussion group.


Focus groups can be an informative way to collect data about a particular topic. While it might not always be what you need when conducting research, it is certainly an efficient way to gain insight from consumers that have used or plan to use a product. As with any research, it is essential to look at all different methods so that you can understand its purpose and pick the type of research method that is going to be most effective for your purpose. Focus groups have been used to understand perceptions and feelings of consumers rather than just collecting quantitative data. Being able to understand the why and how of a product or service can help a company to expand its ideas and better the service for everyone.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.

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