Guidelines for Conducting a Focus Group.

  • Preparation //
  • Selection of participants//
  • Session logistics //
  • Moderating the session//
  • Analysis of Information //

    As part of our study of the effectiveness of an deep discount transit pass program (the UPASS), we conducted a series of focus group discussions. Since this technique is seldom used in transpotation planning and analysis and since the term tends to be misused, we developed some guidelines on how to conduct a focus group. These were written by Jim Meyer based on his experience with the UPASS study

    Focus group discussions have become a popular method of obtaining information regarding numerous topics. During this study, focus group discussions were conducted to obtain information regarding characteristics of frequent transit users, non-users, freshman, and potential transit users. The information obtained through these discussions provided insight into the success of the UPASS program as well as identifying areas of concern.

    Focus group discussions can provide insight into issues which cannot be covered on a survey. For example, a question which appeared on the Fall 1994 survey asked students their opinion regarding the UPASS program. One respondent indicated he was strongly against the UPASS program but during a focus group discussion indicated he felt this way because he believed no one was using UPASS. He went on to say if people were actually using the program, then UPASS was a good idea and should continue. While the survey results gave the appearance this respondent was strongly against the program, the focus group results showed a different viewpoint on how the student truly felt.

    Focus groups are a good method to get people involved in the decision making process and have them provide their input regarding the topic. An employer who is considering implementing a transportation program may wish to conduct focus group discussions to determine the transportation needs of their employees.

    Since the focus group procedure may not be familiar to some, the purpose of this section is to provide a general overview of the focus group process based upon the experience of the focus groups conducted during this study. It is our recommendation that a person with experience with focus groups (preparing the discussion guide, moderating, and preparing the report) be contacted to assist in the process.

    Preparing for the Focus Group Discussion

    When preparing for the focus group discussions there are several considerations including what questions will be asked, who will participate, where will the discussions be held, and who will conduct the sessions? The first order of business is to develop a discussion guide.

    Developing the Discussion Guide. The discussion guide contains the questions which will be asked to participants during the discussion sessions. Approximately 10 to 15 questions should be used for the discussion. Avoid spending to much time on background information and concentrate on the important issues that you wish to cover. There are two elements which should be considered when drafting the guide. First, it is necessary to identify who you want to obtain information from and second, what type of information it is that you want to obtain.

    For the purpose of this report, it was determined that five discussion groups of frequent transit users, non-users, freshman, and potential transit users (Two sessions of UPARK shuttlebus regular users) would be conducted. It was felt these groups would provide different opinions regarding the UPASS program.

    After determining who the information is being obtained from, it is necessary to consider want information will be obtained. With this study, we were interested in finding not only the good points of the program, but also the points that could be improved to make it more successful. In addition, questions pertaining to the quality of the transit system and the marketing of the program were also explored.

    When developing the questions, keep in mind that all discussion groups should follow the same discussion guide. A question such as "Who benefits the most from UPASS?", could receive different responses depending on whether the participants are users, or non-users. By using a general format for each question, it allows the analyst to make comparisons between the responses of the various groups.

    Reserve a Time and Place. Reserving a time and place to conduct the discussion is something which should be done well in advance to the actual date of the discussion sessions. By finding a location quickly, it will allow time to contact potential participants with the necessary information regarding the time and location of the sessions.

    There are several options available when selecting a location to conduct the discussions. For this study, classrooms on-campus were reserved for approximately a three hour time slot. This allowed time to set-up prior to the discussion, conduct the session, and clean-up afterward. In addition, an adjacent classroom across the hall was also reserved where members of MCTS, CUTS, and the UWM Parking and Transit department viewed the discussion sessions via a closed circuit television. Only the moderator and focus group participants should be in the discussion room during the session.

    Another option for conducting the focus group is to hold the sessions at a focus group discussion facility. Marketing firms often have special facilities in which they conduct focus group discussions. Keep in mind a focus group discussion facility will add to the cost of the project.

    When selecting a location, try to find the most convenient and accessible location as possible. Since this study consisted of students, it was felt that the discussion sessions should be held on-campus to increase the likelihood of students participating.

    Provide an Incentive For Participation. Individuals taking part in a discussion session should be compensated for their participation. When contacting potential participants use an incentive to encourage or persuade an individual to take part in a discussion session.

    Various forms of compensation can be used with the most common being a cash payment, lunch or dinner. Snacks and beverages may also be provided at the discussion. This often eases the tension created by the focus group setting and makes participants more open to discussing the topic. For this study, participants received $20 apiece for taking part in the discussion.

    Determine What Equipment is Needed. The research team must determine how detailed of information they want to obtain from the discussion. This will determine whether to audio tape, videotape, or simply take notes. For this study, the discussion sessions were videotaped and were also viewed via closed circuit television. The videotapes were later reviewed by members of the research team to prepare a written report. The advantage of videotaping is it allows the research team to easily make note of the time important quotes and comments were made during the discussion. This will allow the person reviewing the tape to quickly locate these comments and record the exact information.

    If the sessions will be videotaped, it is necessary to reserve the equipment well in advance of the sessions. Equipment which is needed includes:

    It is our recommendation to videotape the sessions as well as having a closed circuit television to view the discussion. The closed circuit television allows the research team to have the moderator ask follow-up questions or more specific questions regarding the topic. If notes are taken by the research team during the session, this will also facilitate the development of a report for the focus group.

    Selection of Focus Group Discussion Participants

    Choosing the Number and Size of the Groups. When developing the discussion guide it is necessary to identify who will participate in the discussion sessions (for example, frequent transit users, non-users, freshman, and potential transit users). This will provide an indication as to the number of discussion groups which will be conducted. The research team should also consider time, money, and the number of potential participants available in determining the number of groups that will be conducted.

    A good size for a discussion group is between 8 to 10 participants per session. However, the discussion can still take place if fewer then 8 participants show up. During this study, one focus group discussion consisted of only 6 participants who still provided very valuable information.

    The number of participants per session will be based upon the potential pool of participants. For example, a large number of students were frequent transit users who indicated they were willing to take part in a discussion group. However, very few non-transit users were willing to take part in a discussion session which made it difficult to recruit 8 to 10 participants.

    Establish a Pool of Potential Participants. Once the number of participants has been determined, it is necessary to establish a pool of potential participants. For this study, the following question was asked on the Fall 1994 survey to recruit participants.

    Would you be willing to participate in a smallgroup discussion regarding the UPASS and other related issues? The discussion would take about 2-3 hours and you would be piad for participation at a rate of $10 per hour. Only a samll number of individuals will be randomly chosen to participate. The discussion will be videotaped for the purposes of review by the researchers in this study


    If you answered YES, please provide your name and phone number

    Name___________________Phone Number__________________

    There are several advantages to forming a potential pool of participants from a survey. The survey provides background information regarding the person you have selected to take part in the discussion. For example, when selecting frequent transit users the survey was reviewed to try to have a representative from each student classification (freshman, sophomore, etc.). The survey also provided other information regarding the participants.

    Another way participants were recruited was by conducting a survey of students using the UPARK shuttlebus service. In the following question, students were provided with the date and time of three possible focus group sessions. Students were asked to indicate if they wanted to take part in a discussion and if so to indicate the date and time they could attend. This method of selecting participants saved a substantial amount of time in recruiting participants since the students were aware of the date and time of the session.

    The Center fpr Urban Transportation Studies at UWM will be conducting small group discussions regarding travel patterns, transit, and the UPASS program on April 4th or 5th. About 8 people are needed and you would be paid $20 for your participation. If you are interested in taking part, please provide the following information.

    Name___________________Phone Number__________________

    I would be able to attend on the following days and times:
    ______Tue. April 4, 4:30-6:00
    ______Wed. April 5, 11:30-1:00
    ______Wed. April 5 4:30-6:00

    Assume Some Participants Will Not Show. It is difficult to assure all participants will show up for the discussion as some individuals may forget, run into a scheduling conflict, or just decide not to take part. For this reason, it is recommended approximately 12 participants be selected to take part in the discussion session.

    It is likely a few participants will not show up for the session which would bring the total number of participants down around 9 or 10. If all participants do show up, then the discussion session should be conducted with everyone.

    Contact Potential Participants. After obtaining a pool of potential participants, the individuals should be contacted by telephone with information regarding the discussion session. When making initial contact with the potential participant, remind them of agreeing to take part in a focus group and ask if they are still interested in taking part. If they are still interested, then provide the date, time, and location of the session. Be sure to mention the incentive for taking part in the discussion as this could influence some individuals to take part.

    Do not assume that since you are calling individuals who agreed to take part that you will only need to make 10 to 12 calls. It is often difficult to get a hold of people and if you do, some individuals may not be able to make the discussion or some may not want to take part. A good rule of thumb is if you plan on recruiting 12 participants then plan on making at least twice that many telephone calls. The quicker potential participants are contacted about taking part in a discussion will increase the likelihood of securing a sufficient number of participants.

    Follow-up Letter. Approximately a week to ten days prior to the discussion session a follow-up letter should be mailed to individuals who agreed to take part. The follow-up letter should thank the person for taking part in the discussion and briefly describe the purpose of the focus group. The letter should also include information which clearly identifies the date, time, and place of the discussion. Participants should be reminded of the incentive for taking part. Finally, participants should be asked to contact the research team if they are unable to attend to allow time to find an alternate participant.

    Preparation for the Discussion Sessions

    (session logistics)

    Room Configuration. The discussion room and viewing room should be setup and ready for the discussion when participants arrive. In this study, the rooms were across from each other and setup as shown below. Participants should be seated around a table with the moderators back to the video recorder. The video recorder should be positioned to provide the widest angle possible and a microphone should be placed on the table. If refreshments are being served, an additional table should be setup in the room. All wires should be taped down or secured to assure that no one trips.

    If the research team or guests will be watching the discussion on the closed circuit television it is necessary to prepare the viewing room as well. The primary concern with the viewing room is that the research team have sufficient space to take notes. The viewing room should be as close as possible to the discussion room so the number of wires are kept to a minimum. By having the rooms close together will also allow the moderator to come over to the viewing room during the discussion to confer with the research team.

    Video Equipment. If the sessions will be videotaped it is necessary to arrive well in advance to the start of the discussion to setup the equipment. Be sure to bring videotapes as these could easily be forgotten in a rush. Tape down and/or secure any wires.

    Refreshments. Refreshments should be placed on a separate table in the discussion room. As participants enter they may take refreshments and be seated around the table. Depending on the refreshments being served, the research team should allow enough time for set-up and clean-up.

    Other considerations. Other items which need to be considered include name tags, consent forms, and payment to participants. Name tags can be made by folding large index cards in half and writing the participants name large enough for the moderator to read. This will allow the moderator to address questions to specific individuals during the discussion.

    Consent forms may be necessary depending on where and for who the study is being conducted. For this study, the questions which were asked during the focus group sessions needed to be approved by the Human Subjects Review Board at the University. As part of their requirement, focus group participants needed to fill out a consent form agreeing to take part in the discussion session.

    If participants are receiving a payment for taking part in the discussion they can either be paid in cash or by check. As part of the requirement of the University, students in this study were mailed checks a few weeks after the sessions were completed. With this payment method, it may be necessary to obtain the participants address and social security number for processing the payment. The best and easiest way to make the payment is right after the completion of the session.

    If brochures, flyers, or other marketing information will be displayed during the discussion it should be easily accessible to the moderator. This is a good opportunity to have the moderator come over to the viewing room to see if any members of the research team have any questions. Leave the material in the viewing room and when the moderator comes over to pick-up the material the research team may have specific questions they wish to ask of the participants. One last consideration is that signs with directions to the focus group may be placed in the hallways to help individuals find their way to the sessions.

    Moderating the sessions

    For this study, Jim Champley of Guidepath Research moderated the discussion sessions. It is our recommendation that an experienced focus group moderator conduct the sessions. Moderating the discussion is a difficult process and someone with experience has the ability to draw information out of the participants. If it is not possible to hire an experienced moderator, the following are a few key points which should be considered when moderating a discussion session.

    Keep the Conversation Flowing. The moderator needs to keep control of the discussion session. If participants get off track or get ahead of the issue being discussed the moderator must pull the group back together. The moderator should try to keep the discussion as informal as possible and should encourage all participants to speak whatever is on their mind. Remember, the moderator is in charge of the discussion and it is his/her duty to draw information out from the participants.

    Length of the Discussion. The discussion session should last approximately 1 and 1/2 hours. During this study, one discussion session lasted approximately 50 minutes while another discussion group took 1 hour and 50 minutes. The participants of the discussion session will dictate the length of the sessions based on the amount of information they have and their willingness to participate.

    Be neutral. One of the benefits of having an outside person moderate the discussion is that the person can be neutral. Some people may not like the topic being discussed and should be allowed to voice their opinion. Use this opportunity to find out why the person does not like the program and in addition find out what changes could be made to improve the program.

    Be careful of participants asking the moderator questions. For example, a student from a discussion group asked the moderator if he knew how the UPASS program was doing. While the moderator did have knowledge concerning this matter, he did not provide the student with the information as it could influence the participants comments. Remember, the purpose of conducting the discussion session is to gather information about how much the group knows and feels about the issue being discussed. The discussion should not be a place to inform people of a program or to convince them of any point of view.

    Talk to Members of the Research Team. During the discussion session, the moderator should take time to confer with the members of the research team to determine if further issues should be explored. This can be done maybe 1 or 2 times during the session. The best time to do this is during a writing exercise or near the end of the discussion. For example, during this study the moderator got up and told participants he left the writing exercise in the other room. If the research team has additional questions, the moderator may ask those questions upon returning to the discussion.

    Analysis of the Results

    Review Your Notes. After a discussion session is completed, take a look at your notes and highlight items you wish to review in greater detail when viewing the videotape. When taking notes be sure to have a watch nearby so you can record the time of when a certain topic was discussed. This will make it easier when reviewing the videotape to quickly locate important points or quotes.

    Review the Videotapes. The videotapes should reviewed shortly after the completion of the discussion session. When viewing the tapes, try to pick out important findings and quotes from the participants. These quotes can be used later to support findings in the report.

    Writing the Report. The written report should follow the questions contained in the discussion guide. The report can be broken-down into four sections including the background and objectives, the methodology, the summary, and the highlights of findings.

    The following provides more detail regarding the various sections:

    1. Background and objectives.

    The background and objectives section provides basic information regarding the project including the history of the topic, the purpose of the study, and the goals and objectives of the research.

    2. Methodology.

    The methodology section should describe how, when, and where the focus groups were conducted and who conducted the study. It should describe the characteristics of the discussion groups who were selected. It should inform readers that the results from the focus groups are the opinions of a small sample size and should be viewed with caution.

    3. Summary and Considerations.

    The summary and considerations section is approximately one or two pages in length and provides the reader with a summary of the important findings. The items contained in this section should be in a bullet, or number format (similar to this page).

    4. Highlights of Findings.

    The highlights of the findings is the section which provides the reader with an in-depth analysis of the questions contained in the discussion guide. This is the section where quotes and comments should be used to support the research findings.

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