Focus Groups


Focus groups are a data collection method.  Data is collected through a semi-structured group interview process.  Focus groups are moderated by a group leader.  Focus groups are generally used to collect data on a specific topic. 

Focus group methods emerged in the 1940s with the work of Merton and Fiske who used focus groups to conduct audience studies.

Characteristics of focus groups

The design of focus group research will vary based on the research question being studied.  Below, we highlight some general principles to consider:

  • Standardization of questions -- Focus groups can vary in the extent to which they follow a structured protocol or permit discussion to emerge
  • Number of focus groups conducted - or sampling will depend on the 'segmentation' or different stratifications (e.g. age, sex, socioeconomic status, health status) that the researcher identifies as important to the research topic
  • Number of participants per group - the rule of thumb has been 6-10 homogeneous strangers, but as Morgan (1996) points out there may be reasons to have smaller or slightly larger groups
  • Level of moderator involvement - can vary from high to low degree of control exercised during focus groups (e.g. extent to which structured questions are asked and group dynamics are actively managed)

When focus groups might be used

Focus groups may be used:

  • To explore new research areas
  • To explore a topic that is difficult to observe (not easy to gain access)
  • To explore a topic that does not lend itself to observational techniques (e.g. attitudes and decision-making)
  • To explore sensitive topics
  • When you want to collect a concentrated set of observations in a short time span
  • To acertain perspectives and experiences from people on a topic, particularly when these are people who might otherwise be marginalized
  • In combination with other methods, focus groups might be used to:
    • gather preliminary data
    • aid in the development of surveys and interview guides
    • clarify research findings from another method

Recording focus group data

One of the challenges in recording focus group data is knowing who is speaking at any particular time, since often multiple people speak in overlap.

  • Consider audio- or video-recording focus group sessions (or even both).  Video will be helpful for identifying who is speaking. Recordings also provide access to nuances of the discussion and the abilility to replay sessions during analysis
  • Transcribe focus group discussions
  • Have a least 2-3 researchers (in addition to the moderator) attend the focus group and take notes.  The focus of each researcher's note-taking efforts might be different (e.g. nonverbal behavior, group dynamics, emergent themes). 
  • Note taking is important to capture nonverbal data.  Even if one is video-recording a group, some nonverbal behavior will be lost that might be recorded by a note-taker.


  • Ability to produce a large amount of data on a topic in a short time
  • Access to topics that might be otherwise unobservable
  • Can insure that data directly targets researcher's topic
  • Provide access to comparisons that focus group participants make between their experiences. This can be very valuable and provide access to consensus/diversity of experiences on a topic


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