Research Methods: Online focus groups

Nancy Hughes

Image of fist with the word 'focus' stencilled on it

Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

Focus groups are a classic method for examining the attitudes, feelings and understanding of particular groups of people and one which we often use to examine engagement with products and services. When properly moderated, they can offer a really dynamic, engaging tool for revealing both individual and shared experiences and insights.

Prior to March 2020 however, we would have conducted these sessions face to face, typically travelling to participants’ chosen location for their convenience, but also for added context.

However, this changed overnight due to Covid-19, replaced instead by MS Teams, Zoom or Google Meets enabled online focus groups.


Whilst no-one misses the early starts and complex travel arrangements often involved in going to see participant groups, conducting these sessions virtually, from the comfort of your spare room (if you are lucky), kitchen table or end of the bed can present its own issues.
Here are a few tips we’ve learnt along the way to help conduct these sessions online/remotely.

Inviting participants 

Having recruited your participants via the normal channels, it’s important in your invitation to offer a video platform that suits your audience, which they can access ideally via a link, rather than having to download any software. This said, you may have to accept you can’t accommodate everyone and the option to telephone in should always be offered.
It’s also advisable to highlight the time zone, as participants may not necessarily be in the UK.
We would also ask participants to ensure, where possible, they are in a neutral space where other people/personal information is not visible. 

Introductions

The beginning of an online focus group can be a little awkward: accepting/acknowledging participants as they arrive; some with their camera on, others off; others emailing with technical difficulties or saying they'll be late. There is a lot going on!
We have learnt to always run sessions with at least two researchers, one dealing with accepting participants and troubleshooting any technical issues and the other welcoming and generally hosting/fostering introductions.

We have also found that the increased visual/cognitive load of these online groups has meant a shorter 60-90 minute session (as opposed to 2 hours) is more effective.

Running the focus group

Once everyone is assembled, and bearing in mind that the chosen platform may not be familiar to all, we might give a brief tour of the basic features e.g. chat function etc.
A contact email/number is offered to participants should they have technical difficulties and, in the event that our WiFi connection drops, participants are encouraged to stay on the link as we will return.
If any materials are to be presented we would ensure participants can view/access them and other arrangements to have been made with those calling in.
We would then go through a few basic house rules, which include:

  • Mute yourself if not speaking to avoid interference

  • Cameras are optional, although in a focus group setting are preferred (unless others are in the room)

  • Notify participants if/when the session is be recorded 

As the focus group progresses, it can be quite overwhelming to monitor and manage all the visual, on screen inputs e.g. raised hands (physical and virtual), chat comments etc. as well as asking questioning, responding and guiding the overall session. As indicated above, we have found it most effective to have one researcher orchestrating the discussion and another dealing with technical issues, admitting latecomers, monitoring raised hands/ the chat and feeding these back when appropriate.

It is also useful for the researcher overseeing the discussion to use two monitors, as, depending on the platform, participants can become obscured or ‘lost’, particularly when presenting materials via a shared screen.

This, and the number of participants in the session can affect the screen layout and the researcher's ability to see (and therefore respond appropriately to) all involved.

Finally, it’s useful for researchers to share a contact number so they can communicate independently of the session, via text/WhatApp, should they need to be alerted to or notified of anything.

Concluding the focus group

At this point in a face to face focus group, it would be natural to engage in more informal discussions, perhaps ask participants if they’d be happy to be contacted in the future and distribute any participant vouchers or remunerations. In an online session, this has to be more deliberate, participants might be asked to indicate in the chat if they are happy to be contacted and then given specific details of how they will receive vouchers (if these were offered).

There are many advantages to online focus groups (including greater reach, lower costs), however any session needs to be carefully planned, appropriate platforms identified and always, always conducted with two researchers.

Find out more:

Conducting remote, online focus groups in times of Covid-19

What is an online focus group? An in-depth guide including examples, types, and steps with advantages

Remote UX Work - Guidelines and Resources