Focus groups are meant to be groups of individuals selected, assembled, and organized by researchers to discuss or comment on, from their own personal experience, a specific topic or subject of research.
A focus group is primarily used when researchers need to generate knowledge of others’ experience, or reaction to something. They can range in size from around 10 to 15 adults and the “focus” underpinning the discussions is really anything that engages the group in a collective activity, such as viewing a film or debating a set of questions put forth by the researchers or doing a blind taste test for a new beverage.
Such a methodology might seem broad—but perhaps that is the point. Focus groups represent diverse sets of people who give their informed consent before the sessions begin. They are usually from different walks of life (socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity) which adds to the richness of feedback given throughout the course of the group meetings. This brings an array of opinions, but also beliefs for researchers to dissect and essentially learn from.
Market Research and Testings
The most basic example of a focus group is a market research exercise for testing a product before its unleashed to the public for consumption. Although not in the hard sciences, such as physic, chemistry, or earth science, there is still a good amount that goes into these testings and for understanding consumer behavior and predicting market trends. Market researchers have to understand why group member A chose product one over product two in a blind taste test. And what happens if there is a tie?
Healthcare Research and Gaps in the Focus Group Methodology
Perhaps some types of focus groups, such as the basic taste testing and market research on new projects are the most objective and straightforward when it comes to a quick learning curve. For other sciences, such as healthcare, in particular, focus groups can reveal a lot of information and clues, but researchers need to pay attention to multiple aspects of the focus group so their results at the end of the study are not skewed in a particular favor. Here’s a quick list of things to watch out for when planning focus groups in, say, healthcare research:
- Groupthink—Are some group members withholding information because they are too scared to share their opinions?
- Is there an internal bias of the moderator asking the questions
- Is the setting of the focus group distracting or logistically hard to get to
- What time are focus groups being held and are group members fatigued
- Is the language of the questions being asked conducive to everyone understanding
One focus group that was conducted by a research team part of the Health Education Research: Theory and Practice journal gathered focus groups of parents to address the issue of parental perceptions surrounding childhood immunization rates in the U.S.
The results of several sessions held with the same participants of the community (parents) of different age ranges, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity, showed a major consensus that most parents didn’t have an understanding of the disease immunizations protect against.
Parents were also quick to cite the media as their knowledge source for anything immunization wise and for knowing when to immunize their kids. Parents also concluded they knew children should be immunized before the school season starts, although the majority of participants could not agree to what age/grade that took place.
Focus groups in the healthcare research field are good at showing how a small sample size responds to the practice of immunizing children. The limitations of this study, and focus groups more generally, revolve around not being able to correlate these findings with much larger population sets, and also bring to mind that some participants may have held information from the group setting—in other words, some might prefer being asked thee questions one on one.
Therefore, it is important to keep in mind what industry focus groups are being used to understand that the effectiveness of generating quality research and insights might vary considerably.