Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Developing a Focus Group Questioning Route

Facilitating the cascading of conversation through group interaction! This is the purpose of our focus groups. Well-planned, organized, and moderated focus groups facilitate group interaction that helps to produce unique insights around a topic. When focus group participants interact in an open and trusting environment, they tend to be more candid than they would be as individuals. Comments from one individual link into comments from others, helping with recall and description, as the group discusses shared experiences. As evaluators, we need to think through what kinds of questions help to facilitate group interaction, and the resulting cascading of conversation.

I have found that preparation is key to moderating a successful focus group interview. You should first ensure that a focus group is the right method to carry out the data that you need, and then you should develop a questioning route that facilitates conversation amongst the group. Don’t make the mistake of developing a questioning route that elicits answers from individuals one-by-one, rather than supporting conversation. Doing prior research helps you to ask more informed questions in your focus groups.

Knowing your questioning route inside and out is crucial, as is being able to develop relevant questions when the conversation goes in an unexpected, yet important, direction. When you know your questioning route and your topic, you will not need to consult your notes, and you can devise new questions as respondents give you answers. Knowing your questioning route also helps to combat nervousness.

As you develop your questioning route, ensure that your questions are not leading, biased, overly sensitive, or confusing. Take note of the language you use, editing out jargon, vague, or confusing terms. Make sure that the questions you ask are appropriate for the particular focus group’s experience and culture. Pilot your questions with someone knowledgeable about the local or organizational culture, so that you can avoid misunderstandings that tend to disrupt the flow of conversation.

Consider using a participatory tool such as a seasonal calendar to get the conversation started and establish rapport. When you moderate the use of such a tool, you can oftentimes judge early in the process who in the group is more likely to dominate conversations, and who is likely not to participate. With this knowledge, you can encourage the active, more equal, participation of all focus group members.

Alternatively, you can start your focus group with an open-ended question that helps to facilitate conversation, yet is not threatening or controversial in nature. Depending on the focus group, you might consider open-ended questions such as “Tell me about something good...” or “Tell me about your biggest success...” or “Tell me about a slice of your work in which you are proud…” These kind of open-ended questions tend to generate conversation and lets respondents open up about their work and discuss what they think is important or positive.

I like to use ranking questions in focus groups, where members discuss and rank challenges or priorities. This can be a good way to facilitate the cascading of conversation as participants discuss and rank issues amongst themselves. Likewise, ideal position questions tend to encourage members to discuss priorities, which helps the researcher to see the importance that people place on different programming aspects. Both ideal position and ranking questions can help to highlight micropolitics within the organization.

I wait until focus group participants are comfortable with each other and me before I ask controversial questions. When asking such questions, I use normative language and I oftentimes deflect aspects that could be considered negative or accusatory. In this way, I try to create an environment where all aspects and opinions are discussed openly.

As you conduct focus groups, you will find that the cascading effect of conversation helps to collect rich, emic data. You will learn different perspectives that help to provide a more holistic understanding of your research topic or project.


Krueger, Richard and Mary Anne Casey. “Focus Group Interviewing,” in Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation, 3rd ed., Joseph Wholey, Harry Hatry and Kathryn Newcomer, eds., San Francisco: Wiley, 2010, pp. 378-403.

Krueger, Richard and Mary Anne Casey. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2009.

Tracy, Sarah. “The Focus Group Interview,” in Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact, San Francisco: Wiley, 2013, pp. 167-173.

About the Author

Doctor Beverly PetersDr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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