URBS 502—Focus Groups


The notes for this section are based on

  • DANDEKAR, H.  2003.  Ch. 2.  Survey Methods for Planners,” in The Planner’s Use of Information, 2nd Ed.  Chicago, IL:  Planners Press.
  • KRUEGER, RA  1994.  Focus Groups:  A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 2nd ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.
  • WHOLEY, JS, and others.  1994.  Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass Publishers.


I.  Purpose: 

A.  A focus group is an informal, small-group discussion designed to obtain in-depth information.”

B.  Brainstorming technique, commonly used in market research

C.  Determine perceptions, feelings, and manner of thinking of consumers regarding products, services or opportunities” (Krueger)

D.  Unlike Nominal Group or Delphi techniques, does not have expectation of reaching solution or any particular end point.


II.  General Procedures

            A.  Each group is 6-12 participants, mostly similar to each other

            B.  Each session usually lasts 90 minutes

C.  Restricted to 3-5 related subjects

D.  May compile results from multiple groups


III.  Advantages

            A.  No single person required to produce an answer (reduces anxiety)

            B.  Permits reflective exploration of similarities and differences in members’ responses

            C.  May cause new insights to evolve

            D.  Inexpensive, relatively easy to organize

            E.  Can be used to develop categories/language for subsequent  quantitative survey

            F.  Can be used to interpret results of prior quantitative survey


IV.  Disadvantageses

            A.  Group dynamics can deteriorate.  Facilitator must be prepared to deal with

                        1.  Dominant personalities

                        2.  Bullies (loudmouths, others who intimidate or harass)

            B.  No single group is representative

            C.  Analyst must be skilled with qualitative data

            D.  Not appropriate for making inferences about a larger population


V.  Conducting a Focus Group

A.  Participant Selection

            1.  Define target group(s) so they are homogeneous on key dimensions (decreases variability and could improve representativeness)

            2.  Different target populations should not be invited to the same session (may inhibit each other’s comments)           

            3.  Recruiting is done over telephone, using screening questionnaire

            4.  Individuals who qualify are invited to the group and told when & where it will be held (follow up with a letter confirming date, time, location and providing directions)

            5.  Focus group participants are usually compensated for their time & effort

                        a.  Required participation is usually ineffective (results in only minimal contribution to discussion)

                        b.  Often inappropriate to offer cash payments to public employees

B.  Agenda

            1.  Open with a general question that all participants can answer and feel comfortable answering

            2.  Questions become increasingly specific as the discussion proceeds

            3.  Usually, no need to control sequence of subjects (can go with the flow rather than the script)

C.  Analysis & Reporting

            1.  Essentially debriefing summary of discussion session                                                               

D.  Other Issues

            1.  Client should communicate with facilitator—helps to know what client needs and does not need to know

            2.  Typical session held in conference room, often equipped with one-way mirror

            3.  Discussion is audiotaped for reviewing notes later

            4.  Best time to schedule is M-R, 6-9:30 (can get in two sessions, one at 6 and one at 8)

            5.  Never place participants in situation that could compromise legal status or violate their rights

            6.  Observe how it is said as well as what is said


VI.  An Example:  End of Life Planning Project

            A.  Client’s interests (“Regional Strategic Plan for People in End Stage Chronic Disease” Region IX Community Care Partnership)

            B.  Participant Selection (“Focus Group Matrix”)

            C.  Agenda (“End-of-Life Care Focus Groups Questioning Route”)

            D.  Data Analysis (“Three Key Questions”)

            E.  Reporting (“End of Life Planning Project Final Report”)

VII.  Project for Practice

A.  Consider the MRAP Proposal to the EPA.

B.  Presume you are charged with Task 2 (p.5)—“Initial Modeling Retreat.”  Your goal is to use focus groups to capture different groups’ “mental models” of

            1.  the nature of the TMDL problem

            2.  the sources of that problem

            3.  the constraints on a solution

C.  Design your focus group project, from initial recruiting through final reporting.




© 2006 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 6 January 2010