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How to Run a Focus Group

Planning and running focus groups to capture insights and evidence


Focus groups rely on the insights of knowledgeable people, so your first step is clearly identifying what you want to learn from the focus group process. With a clear set of questions in mind, invite the individuals best suited to answering your questions and providing information about what you want to know. At the same time, be sure to avoid any unintentional power dynamics (e.g., having both a principal and teachers in one focus group) or conflicts of interest. You will also want to create a setting for people to be open and honest.

To get started, decide if you will take a structured or unstructured approach.

  • Structured focus groups ask specific questions to help you better understand a specific topic such as the findings from an earlier quantitative analysis. In a structured interview, the interviewer has prepared specific open-ended questions and will ask follow-up questions as needed.

  • Unstructured focus groups will also lead you to understand your data but in a way that is much more like a natural conversation. In an unstructured interview, the questions are open-ended, but the interviewer strives to create a flow of natural conversation and uses follow up questions to further understand the participants’ experiences.

Whichever format you choose, make sure to also provide various scheduling options to allow greater opportunity for participants to attend.

Reflection: Would structured or unstructured interviews/focus groups work best in your setting? Some factors you might consider when deciding if you will conduct structured or unstructured interviews/focus groups include:

  • Do you have specific information needs that demand a structured approach to ensure that you get answers?

  • Will a structured approach capture the full thoughts of the participants?

  • Will your participants be able to adapt to changing topics with an unstructured approach?

  • Will the interviewers be able to improvise guiding questions as the conversation progresses with an unstructured approach?

  • Is your focus group small enough for interviewers to manage an unstructured approach process in their note-taking?

Whether you take a structured or unstructured approach, make sure to plan a script so that it is easy to take notes and keep the conversation on track. A script also improves the likelihood that you will get relevant and beneficial information and ensures similar experiences if you conduct multiple interviews or focus groups.

Finally, make sure to record, transcribe, and take notes during the interview/focus group process. Your notes should include participant comments as well as nonverbal communication such as eye-contact or body language.