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Focus on Focus Groups

HSI® Work, Posts

When doing field research, there are many different ways to collect data. For most of the research that HSI® undertakes, it is important to collect both objective and subjective data. One common method of subjective data collection is that of the focus group. While there are countless guides available out there on focus group data collection, I would like to share with you a few practical tips and tricks that we’ve learned over the years. These helped us gather more rich and meaningful data, which leads to a better understanding of the problems we try to solve. Here are a few strategies that, in our experience, help contribute to the overall success of a focus group.

Provide an environment that is comfortable. Be sure to not overlook factors like the temperature of the room, the comfort of the chairs, the lighting, and other environmental factors of the space where you’re holding your focus group. A participant that is more comfortable physically is more likely to open up to the questions you pose.

Try to reduce language barriers. It is ideal to have your focus group facilitated by a person who natively speaks the same language as your participant group. If this is not possible, the services of a translator become essential. Bilingual Canadians, for example, who are conversationally fluent in their second language, may have difficulty expressing detailed concepts or abstract thoughts in their non-native language.

Remove all non-facilitating staff, visitors, and guests from the room. Participants are far more likely to speak their mind when the feel they are not scrutinized by others in the room. This is especially true when these non-facilitating staff have authority (direct or otherwise) over any of the participants.

When dealing with participants or groups with defined hierarchies, it can sometimes be helpful to separate groups by rank or positions. (This, of course, may depend on logistics such as group size and the time allotted for the focus group.) Junior members can sometimes feel intimidated to speak their mind in front of more experienced or higher ranking personnel, or may censor what they say due to fear of reprisals. Separating the larger group into sub-groups based on rank helps prevent this.

Have a script, but be open to tangents; pose follow up questions based on particular responses. Sometimes the best focus group information comes not from the direct responses to your questions, but rather from conversations that evolve organically, with guided follow-up questions.

Be mindful of the time/timing of the focus group. Try and hold your focus group at a time of day when you know your participants are most likely to be engaged and alert, and keep your sessions to a reasonable length of time. If there is a lot of ground to cover, consider breaking your focus group up into two shorter sessions to avoid participant burnout. Provide adequate breaks and rests for your participants to re-energize and regain their focus.

Use participant polling tools (if available) to help promote discussions. Instant audience polling tools (such as Turning Point – can create immediate visual feedback on a group’s collective response to a topic. The answers can then be discussed to elicit further information from the participants. We find that incorporating an interactive component, such as audience polling, into your focus group engages participants and allows for an immediate understanding of the topic.

Be sensitive to the groups’ or any individual’s desire to not be recorded. When dealing with sensitive subject matter, some participants may censor what they say if their voices are recorded. This is especially likely if they think there may be a chance that their leadership could obtain the recording and identify voices. In cases such as these, old fashioned speed-typing or fast writing of notes (with no participant identifiers), works best.

Avoid letting one participant be the dominant voice. Sometimes one participant will “take over” the focus group, and be the first (and sometimes only) person to answer the majority of the questions. Be sure to invite others to share their opinions. Often those who are initially the most quiet have very interesting things to say.

Use props and physical materials if possible. If eliciting feedback about a certain product that had been used during the past week, for example, bring that product into the room so participants can recall its features. If that’s not possible, try to use other media such as video or photographs.

With some careful planning and foresight, focus groups can be an excellent and efficient way to elicit rich and meaningful data from large numbers of participants. This focus group data, once reviewed and analyzed, can help researchers gain greater insight into the research topic, and can help in developing an interpretation of other related, concurrently-collected objective data.

Alison Kelly

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