What is a focus group?

By Roberta Attanasio, STEMM Leadership Editor

Have you been invited to join a focus group? If you’re asking yourself why, think in these terms— you’ve been invited because your opinion counts, and someone is interested in knowing what you think about a specific topic. You will be one of about 6 to 10 participants, including a moderator who will ask open-ended, broad questions about the selected topic.

Notably, participants of focus groups are in most instances unfamiliar with each other. Therefore, the moderator maintains a nurturing environment where all participants are encouraged to share their points of view—without attempting to reach consensus or agreement. At the same time, the moderator will take notes related to the discussion, will most likely record it, and will ensure flexibility so that the discussion can move freely in different directions.

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Later on, the discussion will be analyzed to understand perceptions about the topic in question. Notably, because focus groups are based on group interactions, the insight will be gained at the group level, not at the individual level.

So, what’s the purpose of focus groups? In a few words, it’s qualitative research—which is mostly used to understand how people experience the world. In this case, research is carried out through a group interview. Indeed, focus groups were originally called “focused interviews” or “group depth interviews” and have been pivotal in influencing decisions at all levels. They are used in market research to collect feedback about products, services, concepts and marketing campaigns. They’re also a powerful research tool for sociologists and psychologists. However, they’re not “random samples”, and the views and perceptions of a focus group are likely to be different from those of another focus group interviewed about the same topic.

What type of insight can a focus group provide? For example, how groups of people think or feel about a unique issue or why they hold specific opinions. The insight can then be used to evaluate existing programs, improve the planning and development of new programs, or design strategies for outreach.

Here is the description of one of the focus groups that had a major impact on societyThe focus group that identified the psychological effects of AIDS on the gay community:For the first time in history, a focus group overcame the limited knowledge about the gay community by setting out to study the impact of AIDS on gay men. Research on homosexuality had little input from the gay community up until the mid-1980s due to homophobia (homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the World Health Organization until 1990). Due to past researcher bias, gay respondents mistrusted psychologists, so these researchers needed to create a safe, comfortable environment where gays felt they could express their opinions. The research gained insight into the lives of gay men and the vulnerabilities and fear they felt from heterosexuals during the AIDS crisis. Among other concerns, it also highlighted the resentment they held toward the medical community for not taking the disease seriously until it became more prevalent in heterosexual communities.” Ultimately, this was the beginning of a change in the LGBT community’s attitude and opinions toward research, and the start of society’s improved understanding of that group.”

And here is an awesome TED-Ed video (by Hector Lanz) that explains how focus groups work:

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