Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: How to Conduct Focus Groups for Qualitative Data Collection

What is a Focus Group?
A focus group is a planned interview with no less than three, up to about twelve people, where the moderator encourages participants to discuss a particular topic, starting with the general and getting more specific, or focused, over time. Focus groups are a tool that project planners, managers, and evaluators often use to collect qualitative data related to a project’s planning, implementation, and impact. A moderator goes into a focus group with a line of questioning, and actively leads discussion around a particular issue—starting with the general topic, and then getting more specific, or even controversial, over time. The moderator should be open and non-threatening, so that participants feel at ease, and are comfortable enough to express their opinions and discuss issues.

When are Focus Groups the Right Data Collection Tool?
Focus groups can be a good way to collect qualitative data in monitoring and evaluation, especially when group interaction might produce insight into a topic. Tracy (2013) explains that within a focus group, there is a cascading effect of conversation, as comments link into each other and participants share what can be rich, emic, qualitative, data with each other and the moderator. Group interaction also helps with recall and gives the researcher rich descriptions of shared experiences. Tracy’s advice stands: If your topic would benefit from group interaction, then a focus group might be an appropriate data collection tool for you to use.

Project planners, managers, and evaluators oftentimes use focus groups to collect qualitative data, throughout the lifecycle of a project. Focus groups are not always going to be appropriate though. Krueger and Casey (2010, pp. 385-386) tell us that if you answer yes to any of these questions, then focus groups are not the best method for you:

  • Do you need statistical data? You are not going to get statistical data from a focus group given the sample population size and the general style of a focus group discussion. Remember that a focus group uses various qualitative interviewing and engagement techniques to facilitate discussion and the collection of rich, emic, qualitative data.
  • Will harm come to people sharing their ideas? If you have a sensitive topic, that might be embarrassing or even unlawful, then a focus group is not the right option. You cannot guarantee that people are going to keep confidentiality—even if you set ground rules. At the same time, people might not open up about sensitive topics in a focus group setting.
  • Are people polarized by your topic? You do not want to mediate a debate. A focus group would not be a good choice for you if people are polarized by your topic.

How should we populate a focus group?
A focus group needs to have a homogeneous element: Some commonality that people can discuss together. But this does not mean that a focus group population itself has to or should be homogenous. We might try to invite people with different perspectives or those from different socio economic or demographic backgrounds. But we are only going to do so if participants will not see this as an opportunity for debate.

Krueger and Casey (2010) give some good advice on populating focus groups. The authors tell us that you should first identify the characteristics of the target population, and ask who might have something pertinent or interesting to say about the topic. You should figure out how many different focus groups you might need to accommodate the various population categories, remembering that when various “homogenous” categories meet together, you should be able to facilitate Tracy’s cascading of conversation. You need to define your categories (for example, employment or socio economic status—it all depends on your project and the population and its culture) and then carry out as many focus groups as you need to ensure you get input from people in all of these categories. We usually do not mix categories when this will hinder the cascading of conversation (for example, you would likely not include a male extension officer in a group of female subsistence farmers).

How should we conduct a focus group for Monitoring and Evaluation?
Moderating a focus group takes practice. Tracy (2013) notes that you need to be able to deal with tangents, know how to control respondents that dominate the conversation, encourage hesitant respondents to participate, and be able to react positively to unexpected circumstances that would otherwise disrupt the flow of the focus group. You should consider using a note taker and a recording device to document the conversation: You will find that focus groups often elicit a lot of qualitative data that is difficult to record if only the moderator is taking notes during the interview.

For me, the first step in conducting a focus group is having an evaluation design, and figuring out if a focus group is the right way to collect data towards indicators and objectives. In particular, I use focus groups to collect qualitative data that can help inform a project’s planning, implementation, and evaluation. The second step for me is understanding enough about the project and its theory of change to know who to invite, and how to separate participants into different groups to avoid problems caused by micro-politics. The third step is to develop questions and a questioning route that addresses the Evaluation Statement of Work, while including questions that will produce qualitative data that is useful to project managers and decision makers.

I always sequence the questions so that early questions set the stage for the conversation, and make people feel open and comfortable discussing more important or even controversial topics. I craft questions that are conversational, open-ended, and easy for participants to understand. I pilot the questions with members of the local population, so that I can weed out culturally confusing or inappropriate questions. I make sure that I have enough knowledge of the project, the Evaluation Statement of Work, and the local culture so that I understand cultural terms and can devise appropriate follow up questions based on the conversation.

Focus groups are often a useful data collection tool for project planners, managers, and evaluators to gather qualitative data. Yet, there is no magic bullet to conducing a good focus group. Knowing your line of questioning, being a good conversationalist that can easily build rapport, and having knowledge of the project, its theory of change, and the local culture, can go a long way in helping you to plan and moderate a focus group that helps you to collect qualitative data relevant to project monitoring and evaluation.

Read more in the series.

Krueger 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
Dr. 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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