A guide to focus groups (and how to run them)

By Trenton Moss

Focus groups are facilitated group sessions that help you understand your customers' thoughts and behaviours. Here’s how to make them effective.

What are focus groups?

A focus group invites a group of participants to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and ideas on a defined subject.

It can provide invaluable insights into the way your customers think, producing data that shapes both digital customer experience design and strategic decision-making, helping you gain internal buy-in for digital initiatives.

When and why to use focus groups

Focus groups are most often used as an input to digital design.

Advantages of focus groups include:

  • Quick, cheap, and relatively easy to assemble.
  • Good for getting rich data in participants' own words and developing deeper insights.
  • People are able to build on one another's responses and come up with ideas they might not have thought of in a one-on-one interview.
  • Good for obtaining data from children and / or people with low levels of literacy.
  • Provides an opportunity to involve people in data analysis (e.g. 'Out of the issues we have talked about, which ones are most important to you?').
  • Participants can act as checks and balances on one another, identifying factual errors or extreme views.

Limitations of focus groups include:

  • The responses of each participant are not independent.
  • A few dominant focus group members can skew the session.
  • Focus groups require a skilled and experienced moderator.
  • The resulting data from a focus group requires skill and experience to analyse.

How to plan and prepare for focus groups

Invite around six to eight people to participate for a session to last for about an hour. Then, prepare an agenda including a list of the top-level issues to be tackled (if appropriate).

Prepare an introduction script explaining the purpose of the day and how the day will be run. This can include issues of consent and fire regulations (if relevant). Be sure to always use a quiet room with few distractions and arrange people in a circle (possibly around a table).

Running focus groups

If appropriate, ask the participants to introduce themselves and / or wear name tags. Most importantly, all questions you ask should be open and neutral. It's also important for the moderator to be aware of participants' energy and concentration levels and provide short breaks if necessary. The moderator should encourage free-flowing discussion around the relevant issue(s).

Other tips for running focus groups include:

  • Start with an issue people have strong feelings about with which they're familiar.
  • Phrase issues in terms people will understand.
  • Let participants know their contributions are valuable (both through what you say and also your body language).

It's also important that the moderator realises that:

  • It may be necessary for them to step in and keep the session on-track.
  • Disagreements and debates are useful when they lead to new and interesting ideas, but have to be managed carefully.
  • Issues of power and privacy need to be managed sensitively.

Focus groups should end with the moderator winding-up the session by stressing all that has achieved and casting it in a positive light.

Managing risks

A number of potential problems could arise during focus groups, which will all need addressing:

  • If one participant tries to dominate the session, the moderator should invite each person to speak in turn.
  • Avoid interviewing friends in the same group as they can form cliques. Where cliques do form, suggest taking a break and changing seating positions upon returning from the break.
  • Avoid personal confrontation and allow the group to police itself (e.g. 'do others in the group agree?').
  • Respect someone's right to be quiet, but do give them a chance to share their ideas one-to-one (e.g. during a break).
  • Use differences of opinion as a topic of discussion – the moderator should avoid taking sides.

Useful tips to encourage discussion

To facilitate useful, free-flowing discussion during the focus group, follow these tips:

  • Ask participants to think about an issue for a few minutes and write down their responses.
  • Ask each participant to read, and elaborate on, one of their responses.
  • Note the responses on a flipchart / whiteboard.
  • Once everyone has given a response, participants will be asked for a second or third response, until all of their answers have been noted.
  • These responses can then be discussed.

How to report focus group findings

The minutes, or a summary document, should be produced for each focus group session. A report should be written up, containing relevant profile information about the people who attended the session. Learn more with our guide to focus group testing.