Focus Group Planning by Beverly Peters

Hello again! I am Beverly Peters, assistant professor of Measurement and Evaluation at American University. This is the second article in a 6-part series on Using Focus Groups for Monitoring and Evaluation. In the first article, we learned that focus groups are an appropriate data collection tool when the topic or evaluation question would benefit from group interaction and discussion. We should not use focus groups to collect statistical, sensitive, or individual data, or if people are polarized by a topic.

At this stage, you have determined that your research or evaluation question would benefit from a focus group. What is next? I look at a successful focus group as a three step process: planning the focus group, developing a questioning route, and moderation. In this article, I will discuss planning the focus group.

Part of conducting a focus group is simple event planning. You need a comfortable room, with chairs set up in a configuration that facilitates conversation. Find a venue quiet enough to have a conversation without distractions like ringing phones or outside conversations. I also try to find a venue that is private, so that others who are not part of the focus group do not have the opportunity to listen or observe the conversation. Think through the location of amenities like restrooms, and ensure that you have trash cans and tissues. All of this will help to set the stage for a focus group conversation that is open and candid.

Depending on the environment of the focus group, its participants, and the topic under conversation, you might need signage and name tags—but not every focus group will need these! For instance, if participants already know each other or if a topic is controversial, then name tags could be a distraction to conversation. I always provide water or other drinks for participants, and depending on the time of day, refreshments or snacks.

As participants arrive, greet them warmly, and engage in small talk with the group to help put people at ease. Remember that your participants will only be as comfortable talking as you are moderating.

If you need to use a translator for your focus group, you need to consider not only the translator’s language capabilities, but also their affiliations and networks.  Flesh out how the population will view your translator, and ask yourself if this could influence the data that focus group participants are willing to share with you.

Above all, before you start planning a focus group, you should become very familiar with the environment, your participants, and the topic under conversation. This will help ensure that your focus group is culturally and environmentally appropriate, and you are better prepared to lead its moderation.

Look for Parts 3-6 of this series on focus groups in the coming months!


Assistant Professor Beverly Peters, Ph.D., is a specialist in human security in Africa and has written extensively on economic development, democratization, and HIV/AIDS. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching, conducting research, and managing projects in southern and West Africa.

An expert on political and economic development in Zimbabwe, she has provided political analyses to the government of South Africa and the private sector, and she is regularly featured in local and international media, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation news, The New York TimesVoice of America, and Radio France International.

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