A focus group is a moderated group discussion that focuses on particular topics of interest. Moderators lead focus groups and usually follow a discussion guide of open-ended questions. Here are some tips for planning for focus groups in program evaluation, gleaned from my reading of Richard A. Krueger’s and Mary Anne Casey’s excellent book, Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 4th edition and supported by my own experience.
1. Read Krueger and Casey’s book, Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 4th edition.
This is well-written, comprehensive book filled with practical tips on planning, conducting, analyzing and reporting on focus groups. This blog post cannot serve as a substitute for reading this book. I hope it peaks your interest and inspires you to read the book.
2. Ask yourself whether focus groups are the best method for your evaluation
Create a mental or a drawn out figure listing the pros and cons of focus groups versus other methods such as written surveys or observations. Consider cost-effectiveness, the type of information that you are seeking and the actual resources available. Do you have in-house staff that are qualified to conduct focus groups or that are able to be trained to do so? Or can you afford a professional moderator?
3. Draft a written evaluation plan ahead of time
This is a very important step as it forces us to put our ideas down on paper, spell out steps, think ahead, and ensure that each step is justified. It also avoids last minute decisions that can affect the robustness of your evaluation. A concrete written evaluation plan can also be shared with colleagues and stakeholders to generate valuable feedback.
4. Decide on types of participants to be included in the focus groups
Ask yourself and stakeholders these questions: Who will give you the information you are looking for? Talk to the gatekeepers of your communities and program stakeholders to best answer this question. For example, do you want a mix of patients and caregivers in the same group or are you able to differentiate the groups by patient and caregiver? Are the participants less likely to be candid if the groups are mixed? Present such questions to stakeholders and participants of your initial focus groups.
5. Get feedback on your focus group discussion guide
Start out by asking your stakeholders what questions should be asked during the focus groups. Getting feedback will also help to make sure that all your questions are clear and not likely to be misunderstood. This will help avoid other commonly made mistakes like cramming too many questions into the discussion guide. The discussion guide should make it easy for the group members to enter in and open up. Some strategies include using an ice-breaker question and going from general to detailed questions.
6. Plan to use other methods to corroborate findings
Findings from focus groups are best verified by other methods such as written surveys and observation. This helps address the concern that group participants may give answers that the moderator or others want to hear (social desirability bias). In non-profit settings, it may be hard to convene a focus group where no one knows each other. This might introduce some bias too, hence the need for other methods to verify your findings from the focus groups.