Before you get started
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.
Introduce yourself and your role with the program and set participants’ expectations for the interview/focus group. Your introduction should include the following:
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
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.
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.
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.
Some ways to probe:
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.
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.