GuidesResearch methodsFocus group research: 8 essential steps

Focus group research: 8 essential steps

Last updated

20 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Focus group research is used to get more insight into a specific topic through the interaction of a few demographically similar people with common experiences. Focus groups are powerful in evaluating products or testing new ideas. As a result, it is always good to review the vital steps in conducting a productive focus group session.

Learn the essential steps to focus group research on getting the most accurate insights from your participants.

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Step 1: Choose your topic of interest

Topics favorable to focus groups

A favorable topic for focus groups is exploring the participant's beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and thoughts. Examples of topics that focus groups can explore include:

  • What are people's perceptions of a particular brand?

  • What are their thoughts on a new service?

  • How do they feel about the current trends?

Differences between types of interviews

In focus group research, interviews are used to explore the topic more in-depth. The three kinds of interviews used are: unstructured, semi-structured, and structured. The differences are discussed as follows:

  • Unstructured interviews are used to establish rapport with the participants. As a result, they often have few questions. 

  • Semi-structured interviews involve the use of a guide throughout the process. This allows the researcher to probe the participant for additional information. 

  • Structured interviews adhere strictly to an interview protocol. As a result, it limits the chance to explore topics further.

Primarily, focus group research uses semi-structured interviews. 

Step 2: Define your research scope and hypotheses

This step is crucial because it defines how the subsequent steps will proceed. A rule of thumb is to be as specific as possible when defining the scope so that the questions you ask your participants from the discussion guide will be adequately answered. When clear scope is set, the focus groups become successful. In addition, by defining the research scope, you know what is expected from the focus group as well as:

  • Purpose of the focus group research

  • Types of questions to be asked

  • Specific information required

  • The outcome of the information being sought

A research scope helps highlight what will be covered in the focus group. It also helps in giving an estimate of the expenses and time needed to complete the study. To help you define your research scope, here are some preliminary questions that can be helpful.

  • Why is the research information needed?

  • Who is interested in the results of the focus group research?

  • What is the exact topic of interest?

  • Why does the client need the study to be done?

The next step is to formulate a hypothesis. This is a statement that predicts the outcome of the study and gives a relationship between variables. 

When writing a hypothesis, ensure that it satisfies the following characteristics:

  • Clear and concise

  • Can be tested

  • Predicts the results or outcome of the study

  • Is relevant to the research study

Step 3: Determine your focus group questions

Questions asked in focus group discussions are crucial in collecting findings. Determining the right questions for the focus group is vital for collecting actionable findings. The questions should have a good questioning route. This means they flow logically and naturally, moving from a general concern to a more specific topic. 

There are three categories of questions to ask a focus group. These are: 

  • Engagement questions, which are used to get the participants to feel comfortable

  • Exploration questions, which are those that focus on the major areas of concern

  • Exit questions, which bring the discussion session to a close

The question should be appropriately formulated so that accurate responses are collected. In addition, good questions should be natural and conversational. Also, ensure that the questions are:

  • Short

  • Open-ended

  • Unambiguous

  • Neutral

  • Not leading

Step 4: Select a moderator or co-moderator

A moderator is responsible for leading the group in engaging discussions. A co-moderator is an assistant to the primary facilitator. Moderating a focus group requires adequate skills, expertise, and competency. Therefore, while selecting a moderator, consider one who has the following qualities:

  • A listener

  • An observer

  • Uses non-verbal communication cues

  • Restrains from expressing biased views

  • Empathetic

  • Has people skills

  • Is knowledgeable

Step 5: Recruit your participants

The next step is to recruit participants. An important step in conducting focus groups is the process of recruiting participants. The most common criterion for selecting participants is choosing individuals with adequate subject knowledge. 

Number of participants

Most focus groups have five to 10 members. This is the ideal size for the moderator to manage the group and facilitate effective discussions. The participants of a focus group should be homogeneous. This means that they share common characteristics and behavior. For instance, recruit participants that have the same occupation, gender, age, and family characteristics or have used the service under study in the past.

Step 6: Set up your focus group

Confirm a time and date

When developing focus group research, the two good rules of thumb are to allow six to eight weeks of preparation time and create a schedule to help the planner stay on track. Make a schedule that is convenient for everyone. 

Confirm whether it will take place in person or online

Be sure to inform the participants if the session will occur online or face-to-face. If the discussions are conducted virtually, send out reminders for the online event. In-person discussions will require a location that is accessible to all participants. To ensure high attendance rates, follow the steps outlined below.

  • Set an appropriate location, date, and time for the discussion.

  • Make contact with the participants via personal visits or phone calls. 

  • Send a follow-up invitation to the participants. The invitation should have the proposed agenda, time, and date.

  • Call potential members before the actual date and remind them to attend.

All the participants must provide informed consent. This includes being aware of what the focus group is about, the risks of participating, and having the right to withdraw from participating at any time. The stakeholders should also take the necessary measures to protect the participants' confidentiality and privacy.

Preparation prior to participation

Before the set date:

  • Select a location that is free from noise and can accommodate the members of the groups.

  • Ensure that the venue has bathrooms and refreshments to make the participants comfortable.  

  • Arrange chairs so that all the participants can see each other.

  • Set in place an audio or video recorder to record the session. 

  • Ensure that there are name tags for participants to wear. 

  • Create forum brochures with a welcome note, agenda of the discussions, and ground rules. 

Step 7: Host your focus group

Starting the focus group

Focus group discussions should be scheduled to last between 60 to 90 minutes. This ensures that the participants remain active and contribute to the discussion. Before starting the session, the moderator should welcome the members. Also, engaging in small talk will make the process easier for shy participants.

Leading the discussion

After the pre-session, explain the purpose of conducting the discussion by giving an overview of the agenda. Then proceed to ask the predetermined set of questions. While asking questions, the moderator should allocate equal time to each participant to give their responses. Some of the valuable tips to make the discussion successful include the use of the following:

  • Pauses, including giving participants a chance to add feedback

  • Probes, ensuring that the answers are explored more. It may include asking follow-up questions such as "Can you tell us more about that?"

  • Non-verbal communication, including the use of eye contact and hand signals to encourage engagement

  • During the discussion, the co-moderator can help with note-taking. Once the main tasks of the session have been completed, the moderator can give a closing summary and thank the participants for their time.

Step 8: Analyze your data and report your results

This last step involves examining, tabulating, and recombining evidence collected during the session. The sources to be analyzed include:

  • Moderator's notes

  • Audio tape recordings

  • Memory

Since the collected data is mainly descriptive and not measurable, it has to be converted into forms that can be analyzed. The moderator’s notes will capture the key points that will be analyzed. The audio recordings can be converted into abridged text documents (transcripts). 

To gather information from memory, aided recall and directed cues are effective. Data analysis will then involve indexing, managing, and interpreting collected data.

  • Indexing refers to transcribing the transcripts or notes and assigning unique codes to each. The codes link together pieces of text that represent a similar perspective related to the focus group questions.

  • Management will involve collecting all pieces of text with the same code.

  • Interpretation will involve generating a summary statement that applies to each piece of text. These statements become the key themes that will be recorded in the research report.

When the analysis is completed, a report is written and discussed with the top stakeholders of the research study. The written report should include the aim of the study, a description of the methodology used, a summary of results, and recommendations. 

Advantages of focus groups

A focus group is a research method that involves bringing together a small group of people to discuss a particular topic or issue. 

Here are some advantages of using a focus group:

In-depth insights

Focus groups allow for a detailed exploration of a particular topic or issue. The group members can provide rich, in-depth insights into their experiences, opinions, and attitudes related to the topic being discussed.

Interactive discussion

A focus group encourages an interactive discussion among the group members. Participants can bounce ideas off each other, challenge each other's opinions, and explore different perspectives. This can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the topic being discussed.

Group dynamics

Group dynamics can provide valuable information about how people interact with each other and how they form opinions. For example, a focus group can reveal how group members influence each other's opinions or how certain individuals dominate the conversation.


Focus groups are a flexible research method that can be adapted to different research objectives. For example, focus groups can be used to explore new ideas, test product concepts, or evaluate advertising campaigns.


Compared to other research methods, focus groups can be a cost-effective way to gather data from multiple participants. This is because data can be collected from a group of people at once rather than individually.


Focus groups can quickly generate data, especially when compared to more traditional research methods such as surveys or experiments. This can be especially useful when time is of the essence, such as when evaluating a new product or service.

Disadvantages of focus groups

The following are some disadvantages of using focus groups.

Limited sample size

Focus groups typically involve few participants, meaning the findings may not be generalized to the broader population.

Moderator bias

Moderator bias affects the outcome of the results. Facilitators may inject explicit bias or allocate unequal response times to the participants. For example, the moderator may force participants to answer questions in a certain way. This significantly impacts the outcome of the research.


Conducting focus groups can be time-consuming and expensive, particularly if they involve recruiting participants, paying incentives, and renting a space for the session.

Group dynamics

The group dynamics can also impact the quality of the data collected. Some participants may be more dominant and vocal, while others may be quieter or reluctant to share their opinions.

Biased responses

Group thinking may influence the opinions of participants. For instance, participants may agree with the responses of fellow group members and avoid sharing their honest views. In addition, desirability bias is common. Participants may also be influenced by social desirability bias, which can lead them to provide responses that they believe are more socially acceptable rather than their true opinions.

Sensitive topics

Sensitive topics may be avoided. Some participants may be uncomfortable discussing sensitive issues that may concern the public. 

Difficulty in analyzing data

Analyzing focus group data can be challenging, as the data can be subjective and open to interpretation. Additionally, the data may be difficult to quantify or summarize meaningfully.


Why is a focus group the best method?

Focus groups allow the researcher to gather in-depth information on a specific topic from all participants at once.

Is the focus group quantitative or qualitative?

Focus groups are a qualitative data collection technique since collected results are mostly descriptive rather than statistical and measurable.

What is the sample size in the focus group?

The sample size is defined as the total number of participants in the research study. The ideal sample size for a focus group is six to ten participants.

What type of data collection is a focus group?

A focus group is a qualitative data collection technique in which the researcher learns and understands people's motivations for certain actions.

How do you find people for a focus group?

Several ways to recruit participants in focus groups to include nominations, convenience sampling, random selection, or open calls. Online forums, social media, and social media interest groups can be a source to recruit participants. Consider also discussion boards and professional networks. Last but not least, you can use the services of a recruitment agency which will arrange a sample of representative participants.

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