Reasons for using focus groups
Focus groups are a useful method to:
- investigate complex behaviour
- discover how different groups think and feel about a topic and why they hold certain opinions
- identify changes in behaviour
- investigate the use, effectiveness and usefulness of particular library collections and services
- verify or clarify the results from surveys
- suggest potential solutions to problems identified
- inform decision-making, strategic planning and resource allocation
- to add a human dimension to impersonal data
- to deepen understanding and explain statistical data.
Advantages of focus groups
The main advantages of focus groups are:
- they are useful to obtain detailed information about personal and group feelings, perceptions and opinions
- they can save time and money compared to individual interviews
- they can provide a broader range of information
- they offer the opportunity to seek clarification
- they provide useful material eg quotes for public relations publication and presentations
Disadvantages of focus groups
The main disadvantages of focus groups are:
- there can be disagreements and irrelevant discussion which distract from the main focus
- they can be hard to control and manage
- they can to tricky to analyse
- they can be difficult to encourage a range of people to participate
- some participants may find a focus group situation intimidating or off-putting; participants may feel under pressure to agree with the dominant view
- as they are self-selecting, they may not be representative of non-users.
Advantages of using online focus groups
The main advantages of online focus groups are:
- Lower costs
- Greater anonymity
- Allow easier participation by distance learners, part time staff and students etc.
Disadvantages of using online focus groups
The main disadvantages of online focus groups are:
- No opportunity to observe interaction
- May be technical difficulties
- Those who are less confident users of electronic services may be less willing to participate
Focus group process
Stage 1: Determine what information is required. What do you want to find out?
Focus groups are usually conducted in relation to specific library resource or services.
Stage 2: Decide on the number of focus groups, focus group participants eg students, library staff, academics and how these should be contacted
Most focus groups consist of between six and twelve participants. Homogeneity is important, but participants should be sufficiently diverse to allow for contrasting opinions. In most situations, there should be separate focus groups for staff and students. However, if you want to explore how perceptions vary between different groups, you may wish to encourage a mix of different types of participants. Ideally, the participants should not know each other. Ways to recruit participants include email, posters and flyers. Tutors may be useful to help to recruit students. Invitations should describe:
- the purpose of the focus groups
- the participants' role and what is expected of them
- how long the focus groups will last
- any rewards which will be provided
Stage 3: Draft the interview schedule, considering content, wording, format, structure and layout
Issues to consider
- Can the question be easily understood?
- Is the question biased?
- Is the question open-ended? Does it encourage discussion?
- Is the question necessary to the evaluation?
- Will interviewees be willing to provide the information?
- Is the question applicable to all interviewees?
- Does the question allow interviewees to offer their opinions/expand on basic answers?
- Are follow up questions likely to be required?
- Will it be straightforward to analyse?
Stage 4: Pilot/test the focus group schedule with colleagues or a sample of potential participants and revise as necessary
A focus group should typically last between one and two hours. Make sure the questions can be discussed in the allotted time. Consider the best order of questions to ensure the flow of conversation.
Stage 5: Conduct the focus groups
- In the introduction, the evaluator should:
- confirm that anonymity will be preserved
- describe the ground rules
- reiterate the purpose of the research.
- Focus groups are best carried out by a pair of evaluators, one to facilitate the group and the other to record responses, themes, enthusiasm, body language, mood of discussion etc.
- Use the focus group proforma to record attendance
- Record focus groups if possible
- Evaluators should keep the discussion moving and be prepared to ask probing follow-up questions suggested by the participants' responses
- Evaluators should keep the discussion focused on the topic being investigated
- Evaluators should attempt to bring everyone into the conversation
Stage 6: Transcribe focus groups
Stage 7: Analyse the transcripts
- The findings should be analysed at group level.
- The results should not be generalised to groups with different demographic or other characteristics.
- Ideally both the facilitator and the observer are involved in the analysis of transcripts.