The role of a focus group moderator

In general, moderator should be “flexible, objective, empathic, persuasive, a good listener” (Fontana and Frey 2000, p. 652) In a ideal focus group, the moderator would just participate to put research topics. It is participants who must dominate the discussion. However, there are a number of situations where moderator should also participate.

1. To prevent single participants or small groups from dominating the discussion and encourage reserved members to become involved. You may use such sentences as “what do you think “participant´s name”?, “what do other people think about?“.

2. To reflat the discussion using provocative questions. Whenever the dicussion among participants seems not to be enough dynamic, it is the moderator who should formulate new debate-provoking questions.

3. To steering the discussion toward a deepening. Whenever research topics are covered superficially and with no further details, the moderator you formulate depth-provoking questions such as “what do you mean by…?”

Finally it is recommendable count with the support of an assistant. It allows moderator focus on managing the group and assistant to take notes.

References

Fontana, A., & James, H. Frey.(2000). The interview: From structured questions to negotiated text. The Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 645–672).
Thousand Oaks, London & Delhi: Sage Publications. Cited in Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Ibáñez, J. (1979). Más allá de la sociología: El Grupo de Discusión: teoría y crítica. Siglo XXI de España Editores.
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How to design a Focus Group based research

1. How many groups are required? Organizing several groups enables trends and patterns to be identified when the data collected are analyzed (Saunders et al, 2003).  The figure may vary according to the research questions and, above all, the different population subgroups required (Morgan, 1988). However, if after the fourth group you are receiving new information it means that you have reached saturation (Krueger and Casey, 2000). Actually four or five are generally enough.

2. How many participants each? Between 4 and 8 and exceptionally up to 12. It strongly depends on three factors: skill of moderator, nature of participants, how complex the topic is.

3. How long does it take each session? From one to two hours, although it may vary according to how actives participants are. Actually, it may finish once the group has exhausted the discussion of a topic. How to know when a topic is exhausted? There are no criteria and it is the moderator who has to make his/her own decisions.

4. How to recruit participants? Focus group sampling is non-probabilistic, i.e. it does not aim to do inference afterward but just select participants from the population subgroup under study, normally your target. For instance, students from 20 to 25 years old. The selection process is commonly called “recruitment”. The person in charge of select participants, so called “recruiter” shouldn´t play the role of moderator too. The recruitment should be done by mean dial previous participants or following snowball methodology, i.e. contacting people through social networks who will lead recruiter to more people and subsequently. It is strongly recommendable to work with strangers instead of groups of friends or people who know each other very well, because the level of things taken for granted may lead to leave relevant information out (Morgan, 1988). Finally, institutional networks should be avoided.

5. What is the most appropriate location for a focus group? Neutral setting is required. Avoid noisy and crowded places that may interrupt the discussion ongoing. It is recommendable avoid saturated spaces, i.e. with many objects and staff since it may break the concentration of participants. An oval table is required. It assures that all participants can see each other and facilitate interaction. Some market research agencies count with specialized rooms for focus group. They count with viewing room next door that allows other researchers and sponsor watch the focus group. However, most of the groups are recorded both voices and video.

References

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2008). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.
Morgan, D. L. (1988). Focus groups as qualitative research; Focus groups as qualitative research (No. 16). Sage Publications.
Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009

What should a focus group composition be like?

What should a focus group composition be like? Which features participants should meet? The answer of these questions depends basicly on the population group under study and the aims of the research. However, a general rule should be followed. A certain homogeneity among participants is required. What does homogeneity mean? All members share something in common. It may be a common interest (music, sport, consumers of a specific product), origin (from the same city, country or neighboorhood) or whatever other feature. Like in a group of friends or gang, this reinforces participants as a group and, consequently, leads to a greater dialogue.

However, certain heterogeneity is also necessary. If you recruit very similar participants you run the risk that the group is not dynamic enough, i.e. everyone agrees and no dialogue is generated.If you are testing a product, you might recruit both consumers and non-consumers. If homogeneity guarantees group birth, heterogeneity does its growth. In other words, the different participant´s point of view enrich the dialogue. This is not a banal issue. The existence of “conflict” among participants is a key issue to make the best of a focus group. The point is to come across a debate-provoking variable or “turning point”. It is very clear in policy testing or electoral studies. Whenever a group is composed by both right and left participants, the debate is assured.

Finally, the composition of a focus group is normally organized in a table as bellow. There you can see a number of “homogeneity” and “heterogeneity” variables. In this example, the heterogeneity or turning point (breaking point) comes from the different brand consumption variable, while age and sex would reinforce participants as a group.

tabla_grupo

References
Ibáñez, J. (1979). Más allá de la sociología: El Grupo de Discusión: teoría y crítica. Siglo XXI de España Editores.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data. Sage Publications Limited.

Advantages of focus group

There are a number of broad advantages to the use of the focus group. These may be summarized as follows:

1. Group basis. They are an economical way of tapping the views of a number of people, simply because respondents are interviewed in groups rather than one by one (Krueger, 1994)

2. They can provide a “safe” forum for the expression of views, e.g. respondents do not feel obliged to respond to every question (Vaughn et al., 1996)

3. Simulation of everyday interaction. Focus group provides information on the “dynamics” of attitudes and opinions in the context of the interaction that occurs between participants, in contrast to the rather static way in which these phenomena are portrayed in questionnaire (Morgan, 1988) or in-depth interview studies. Top of that, such interacion may well be comparable in any way with everyday ineraction (Flick, 2009) and this is actually the point of the focus group, i.e. a simulation of everyday reality. It is attempted to collect the data in context and to create a situation of interaction that comes closer to everyday life than in an interview.

4. They may encourage a greater degree of spontaneity in the expression of views than alternative methods of data collection (Butler, 1996)

5. Check, balance and consistence. Interaction is not only between interviewee and interviewer (moderator) but among all participants. It increases the dynamic of the discussion which favors checks and balance among participants and “weeds out false or extreme views” (Flick, 2009). Somehow they correct each other. Additionally, it may provide with greater consistence to the focus group conclusions as long as all participants agree on a specific topics.

6. Participants may feel supported and empowered by a sense of group membership and cohesiveness (Goldman, 1962)

7. Less risk of bias by the interviewer. The interaction interviewer-interviewee always drives a risk of bias. Even when interviewer has a lot of experience, the responses are sometimes affected by the mere presence of an unknown person. This risk decreases in a focus group. Despite the obvious presence of the interviewer or so called moderator, the tendency is him/her to occupy a non-predominant role. Actually the moderator´s role is rather facilitate the group own dynamic and avoid that one person dominate the discussion. It depends on the research objectives but in some cases, the less involved the moderator, the better (Ibañez, 1986).

Despite the organization of a focus group may be seen as a simple meeting to discuss on a specific topic and so that doable even for non-experience researcher, most of the advantages above highlighted strongly depends on a number of issues to be cover in futures posts, such as the focus group design, group composition or the role played by the moderator. Bear in mind that a “well-conducted focus group research can determine the course of your company’s future” (Edmunds and Edmonds, 1999)

References

Carey, M. A. (1994). The group effect in focus groups: planning, implementing, and interpreting focus group research. Critical issues in qualitative research methods, 225-241.
Edmunds, H., & Edmonds, H. (1999). The focus group research handbook. Chicago: NTC Business Books.
Goldman, A. E. (1962). The group depth interview. The Journal of Marketing, 61-68.
Gutiérrez, J. (2008). Dinámica del grupo de discusiónCuadernos metodológicos del Centro de Investigaciones Científicas, (41).
Merton, R., Fisk, M., & Kendall, P. (1956). The focused interview: a report of the bureau of applied social research. New York: Columbia University.
Morgan, D. L. (1998). The focus group guidebook. Sage.
Ragin, C. C. (1994). Introduction to qualitative comparative analysis. The comparative political economy of the welfare state, 299, 300-9.
Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., & Sinagub, J. M. (1996). Focus group interviews in education and psychology. Sage.
Article updated on 24th of April 2014