Preparing to Conduct an Interview or Focus Group — Learning for Action (2022)

Before you get started

  • Define the purpose and main topics of the interview/focus group: Be able to explain in your own words (not reading the introduction of the protocol) what the purpose of the interview/focus group is and what the main topics are that you will be asking about. Getting clear about the purpose of the interview/focus group will help you answer questions that participants might ask and will focus your efforts.
  • Know your interview/focus group protocol: Before conducting the interview/focus group, review the interview/focus group questions and make sure you are familiar with each specific question. This will help you be comfortable shifting the order of questions during the interview/focus group if participants provide responses that apply to later questions. Think about how much time you will need to spend on each question to complete the interview/focus group in the allotted amount of time.
  • Understand the purpose of all interview/focus group questions: Carefully read the interview/focus group questions and make sure you understand why you are asking. This preparation will make it easier to ask follow-up and clarifying questions during the interview/focus group or to reword the question if the participants need clarification about what you are asking. Think in advance about what probing questions you could ask to draw out the necessary information from participants to meet the purpose of each interview/focus group question.

Logistical considerations


It is important for participants to know that the conversation is private and that what they share stays in the room. Choose a location for the interview/focus group where other people won’t listen in or disrupt the conversation. For focus groups, set up the chairs around a table or in a circle so everyone can see each other and so the facilitator and note-taker can see everyone in the group.


Confidentiality is critical. Assure participants you will not use their names or any other identifying or personal information when sharing results. Tell participants not to share anything they hear in the focus group with anyone outside of the group. Reinforce that conversations that happen within the focus group are private and confidential. These assurances help participants feel comfortable and open to sharing their opinions.

Start with introductions

Introduce yourself and your role with the program and set participants’ expectations for the interview/focus group. Your introduction should include the following:

  1. Say your name and role with the organization;
  2. Tell participants the purpose of the interview/focus group and why they were invited to participate;
  3. Explain what will happen with the collected information and how young people in your program(s) will benefit;
  4. Explain how long the conversation will last; and
  5. Ask permission to record the conversation.

Establish agreements

Tell participants that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers and that they should share their opinions and experiences candidly.

In focus groups, participants do not have to agree with what other people say. Ask people to share agreement or disagreement verbally so your note-taker can include that in the notes.

Remind participants that only one person can talk at a time so you can hear everything they say.

Not everyone needs to answer every question, but let the participants know that you would like to hear from everyone during the focus group.

Managing a successful conversation

Ensure questions are fully answered

Sometimes you will need to ask a question in more than one way to make sure people understand it. You want to make sure that by the end of the conversation you have all the information you hoped to get. Pause briefly and review the question that has just been under discussion to make sure that participants have really addressed it, before you move on. Don’t be afraid to ask the question again, or a different way, to redirect participants back to the topic.

Be comfortable with silence

Before and after you ask a new question, allow for brief pauses and silences. This gives participants time to think about their response, or share additional thoughts.

Go with the flow

If participants begin talking about something that may be an answer to a different question than the one that you asked, then go with the flow and allow the conversation to go in that direction. However, remember to go back to the questions that have not yet been asked or answered.

Ask clarifying questions

Some ways to probe:

  • “Could you please elaborate?”
  • “Could you explain what you mean when you said…?”
  • “Could you say more about…?”
  • “Can I make sure that I have this right? This is what I heard…”
  • “What I think I hear you saying is… Is that a fair/accurate interpretation?”

Manage time

While it is important to make sure that participants addressed the question, it is also important to keep moving the conversation forward so that you cover all or most of the questions in your protocol. If you begin to run short on time, you may need to prioritize the remaining questions. It may help to put a watch on the table where you can see it during the conversation. You may want to explain to participants at the beginning of the conversation that you will be keeping an eye on the time so that the conversation doesn’t run too long, so that if they see you checking the time they will know it’s not because you’re bored or impatient. You can also ask your note-taker to track time for you.

Thank participants

Let people know their participation was important and useful, and that you appreciate their time and courage in sharing their thoughts. Restate how their input will be used.

Addressing common focus group challenges

It can be difficult to manage the conversation during a focus group. Here are a few tips that can help you ensure that everyone has a chance to participate and that the conversation doesn’t get sidetracked.

Encourage people who haven’t spoken to share

  • If someone hasn’t responded to any questions yet, you can say:
    • “I haven’t heard from a few of you yet. Is there anyone who hasn’t said anything who would like to share?” Don’t single out individuals who have not spoken, as the conversation is voluntary.

Manage long talkers or conversation dominators

  • Some people will want to respond to every question or will talk over or interrupt other participants. Often, a person who keeps talking is doing so because they don’t feel they are being heard. It can be helpful for the facilitator in these cases to reflect back what they are hearing the person saying before moving on. To ensure that one person doesn’t dominate, you can say:
    • “Thank you for sharing your experience. I hear you saying [reflect back a summary of what they said]. Now I want to make sure that other people also have a chance to talk.”

Transition the conversation to keep it flowing

  • There will be times when people want to talk about one topic for a long time, or when they talk about a topic that is not related to the focus group conversation. It is the job of the facilitator to keep the conversation on track. To transition back to the focus group questions or move the group along, you can say:
    • “Thank you for everything you shared about your experience with [insert topic here]. I want to make sure we have time to talk about a few other topics so I am going to move us along.”

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