Podcast Episode: The Whys and Why Nots of Focus Groups

The following is an informal transcription of this episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast.

Julia: I'm Julia Prince.

Pam: I'm Pam Fitzgerald, and we're with The Ivy Group.

Julia: Today we're talking about the role of focus groups with Ellen Roberson. She is one of our in-house library consultants.

Pam: Ellen, thanks for walking down the hall and joining us!

Ellen: Thanks for getting me out of my office! Glad to be here.

Pam: Over the years we have conducted focus groups all over the country with many kinds of organizations. You have been engaged with many of those projects. Regardless of the size, location, or kind of organization, there are some principles that can be applied in any context. I am hoping that through the course of our conversation, we can assist libraries who are considering focus groups as part of their research strategies. Do you want to begin with perhaps a definition?

What is a focus group?

Focus groups are guided conversations on a particular topic.

Julia: The obvious first question! What is a focus group?

Ellen: I think of a focus group as a collection of, shall we say, like-minded individuals, preferably in person, on a particular topic or a focused issue among people who are familiar with that particular issue or topic and who can speak about it.

Pam: In controlled conditions according to a predetermined discussion guide...

Julia: For the purpose of collecting information on a specified topic...

Pam: Facilitated by an individual who has both the skills and experience to listen and to respond appropriately. They know how to ask the questions the right way.

Ellen: They're also not a conversation in the sense that a conversation is casual, and the conversation goes wherever the conversation may go. They are scripted conversations.

Pam: That's a good way of describing them. For example, I know we've conducted focus groups with teens. Yes, with teens. We just don't let them know we call them teens.

Julia: Younger adults?

Pam: The YA crowd. And their participation is focused around issues that are relevant to them. We could do it, for example, with business owners. A library is thinking of expanding its entrepreneurial services so you bring people who have start-ups, and you begin to test with them what you're thinking. Another one might be parents of young children. They have very specific perspectives on what the library can do to better serve their families.

Focus groups can be two-way streets of sharing information.

Ellen: It's been interesting in a few projects that I recall—to use your example, parents of young children—we know that's the group in the room. We begin the conversation with why do you use the library, what are you looking for the library to provide, what are you satisfied with here... I have found there are situations when we think we're dealing with individuals whom we think are knowledgeable, the focus groups can also be a forum for promotion of services that are offered. Inevitably, someone will say, "You do that? I didn't know you did that." There's an educational component there at the same time. There is a provision of information to participants as well as a sharing of information with us. It's a two-way street.

Focus groups are a form of qualitative research.

Julia: Ellen, I going to put my research analyst hat on and go back to what you said in your definition of focus group and how it could be used. Pam, you used the word test—we're testing assumptions perhaps. Can you talk a little about the limitations of how things can be tested in a focus group? Basically, I'm leading you to....

Ellen: She's leading the witness!

Julia: I'm leading the witness to, "Are they statistically significant?"

Ellen: That was a big leap, Julia. I'm going to meet you where you led me.

No. They are not statistically significant. In saying that, what I mean is that focus groups are what we consider qualitative research or anecdotal information because they're primarily conversations.

Who should be invited to participate in a focus group?

Familiarity is a key requirement.

In the context of focus group recruitment, when we are going to conduct focus groups, we typically rely upon the organization to recruit people to attend.

Pam: Because they know people who are most familiar with the organization [or the topic].

Julia: They're a trusted source as well. You can come into our building and be in the space we provided. You know who we are.

Ellen: You want/expect the people who are participating in a focus group are knowledgeable about what you want to talk to them about. Who better in a library situation, to your point Pam, to know about children's programs than people who regularly attend them? So the library staff will often perform the recruitment function for us to ensure that the people in the room are knowledgeable about the topic to be discussed.

Self-selection means a built-in bias.

Pam: To go back to Julia's point, they are not objective and are not statistically reliable because we're getting people who are basically voicing opinions. So, we are either using them to confirm what we've heard elsewhere or to set the stage for quantitative research to refute or confirm quantitatively.

Julia: We are "testing" in the broadest sense of the word. We're gathering ideas that perhaps wouldn't have occurred to us on our own for the later quantitative research.

Ellen: Right. People will self-select to participate in one of these group discussions. They are already known by the organization.

Pam: They have agreed to show up.

Ellen: We have not sat down with the phone book or done "man on the street" stopping people to randomly select from the general population.

Pam: This is different from consumer research where you're testing from a wider consumer base. You don't have to have people as familiar with the product since you're testing other assumptions. Then it's a question of listening to them about what's presented. When you're asking people to come in with prior knowledge, that's more what happens in the library realm. What we can expect to learn from them is limited to their experience.

Unlikely to get non-users to participate or contribute valuable insights.

Ellen: Right. And probably across the broad expanse of all research methodologies available, if I may, the biggest "ding" against focus groups is, metaphorically, "You're only going to be preaching to the choir." You will not have non-users speaking from that perspective because why would someone take their own time and go to a discussion of something that they know nothing about?

Julia: What would you even have to learn from them?

Ellen: Why would the library potentially care?

Are focus groups similar to town halls?

Both are qualitative community conversations but focus group participants are recruited and screened.

Pam: It's interesting that people sometimes do not make a distinction between a focus group and a town hall. Sometimes I've heard them used interchangeably.

Julia: They want to take it to the people, but they don't know what the best way is to invite the people in.

Pam: A town hall is quite different.

Ellen: I think it depends on what you want to know. How specific your specific lens of focus is. A town hall is open and available to anyone to your community promotion that this event is happening. It's more inclusive, more general, it's not screened in any way. Anyone who would like to participate in a planning project, whether you know much about the library or not, is welcome to attend.

For focus groups, the word focus is key. They are more targeted and directed to a specific segment of the usership and are highly scripted rather than a broader compilation.

Town halls are open to the public and provide a sense of inclusivity but less control.

Pam: It doesn't mean that a facilitator for a town hall hasn't thought about the progression of the questions, how they should be phrased, how to engage people, and how everyone in the room has an opportunity to be heard, but there is less control in a town hall. It's great PR.

Julia: And perhaps more of a PR exercise than a fact-finding exercise or an opinion-seeking exercise.

Pam: I don't mean to be cynical, but it gives the appearance of inclusivity.

Julia: Authentically so. "You were invited to attend. Come one. Come all."

Ellen: In terms of a focus group, once you have more than twelve people max, for a tightly scripted, controlled yet open conversation, in terms of overall community input and the population participating in your planning effort, if you're only doing two to three  focus groups, well then, at ten people max...

Pam: How many people are you really hearing from?

Ellen: Whereas from a publicity, PR, transparency, inclusion standpoint, a town hall is opening the library up to, as you said, "Come one. Come all."

Pam: In a town hall, you also have people who are really irritated with you show up.

Julia: We've all seen Parks & Rec, right? We know how those town halls go.

Pam: That's right!  And you don't have control over that. It doesn't mean that you don't want to hear negative things in a focus group. It's just that the audience is more controlled.

Ellen: Less of an opportunity for a "flame thrower" to show up.

Pam: Absolutely.

Focus groups are a more collaborative experience than town halls, with an opportunity to explore nuance.

Julia: What about the collaboration component as well? The point of the focus group is to get the participants to interact, lead each other down paths that maybe they otherwise wouldn't have been able to go down in a one-on-one interview. In a town hall, there is much less room for that type of collaboration.

Ellen: Because there is potentially less connection, less commonality.

Pam: It's not just that. [A town hall is] almost performance. Let's say they are passing the mic around, and people stand up who have well-prepared questions and others who are less prepared.

But when six to eight people are in a room eyeball-to-eyeball, part of the value is their response to each other. The discussions around areas of common interest become very interesting and nuances can be fleshed out. In a town hall meeting, no; more broad strokes.

Ellen: It's interesting to see a focus group where people do not know each other seated across from one another.

Julia: It's not their tribe, right?!

Ellen: Yes! It can really enrich the overall tenor of the conversation. There's nuance and shared connections. I think the conversation goes different places that otherwise the facilitator would not have been able to extract.

Pam: A skilled facilitator in a focus group makes it possible for the script to flow. In a town hall, what did you call them "flame throwers", can take everyone off-base and you have people reacting to what was last said. I do not mean to suggest that town halls should be tightly controlled. You want to ensure that you can ask the questions you want to ask and provide ample opportunity for people to answer.

Julia: Walk in with your eyes wide open when you go into a town hall and know what you're there for.

How many focus groups should you conduct?

Pam: When we conduct focus groups, I know that we're always asked how many should we do?

Ellen: Oh, it depends. And when someone asks that, they hate when that is the answer given.

Julia: How many questions do you have? How many areas are you investigating?

Pam: My experience has been largely that you don't keep conducting them until you get the answer you want to here. Instead it's almost like triangulation.

I've noticed that you conduct the first one with a specific targeted group, and you learn all sorts of new things. And in the second focus group, you may hear some other new things. The third one tends to confirm or refute what you heard in first two. It's a nice form of triangulation. Any more than that, and you tend to hear the same things repeatedly.

Ellen: I want to go back to "it depends". Yes, if you're talking about multiple focus groups on the same topic, three focus groups of teens as an example, my furrowed brow references the project we did some time ago in Brooklyn. We did eight focus groups with different languages or ethnic backgrounds. It was very important from the library's perspective in that part of the world to be sure how it was serving the Chinese community, for example, or the French Creole, Russian, or Haitian communities. We did multiple focus groups across those segments. On the same topic, yet the individuals were coming from socially disparate segments.

Pam: We were actually teasing out the cultural issues around the service issues.

Ellen: Thankfully, we haven't done multilingual social groups since then. The complexity of that was such that we did not hear the same things across the board. There were nuances. But to the point of three teen groups or three seniors' groups, three is the point that you'll have the sense of the main nuggets.

Who should facilitate a focus group?

A neutral moderator will allow participants to speak more freely.

Pam: Should a librarian facilitate his/her focus groups?

Ellen: I feel self-serving saying no, but I say "no" because I would assert that he/she was too close. Too close to the subject matter, the place... It's difficult to turn off that part of the brain that tells you, "I know my customers."

Pam: And there's that temptation to respond, right? And defend?

Julia: As a participant, would I feel comfortable in giving honest feedback, particularly negative feedback, to the face of someone who represents the institution that I'm critiquing? I believe it would be very limiting in terms of the information you collect from these conversations if a representative of the library is in the room.

Ellen: That is true. You would feel freer to tell it like it is.

In addition to a neutral moderator, have a recording device and an assistant moderator.

Pam: This is interesting. This goes to who does facilitate. We've talked about this in the past where a recorder is a nice idea, but what we're really talking is a moderator and an assistant moderator. That enables one individual to be looking eyeball-to-eyeball as they talk/respond and have a conversation. The second individual can be listening and watching.

Julia: Let the moderator moderate. That's a full-time responsibility in the room. Let the assistant take notes, pick up on themes, ask the follow-up questions at the end, etc.

Pam: Right. The moderator is really into the flow of the conversation whereas the assistant is into making sure that all the boxes have been checked. Is there something we haven't explored? The moderator must be skilled in asking the questions the right way. For example, never ask a yes/no question. The assistant moderator is the person who can catch that and tease out where the answer didn't fully meet the needs of the questioner.

Moderators should have a discussion guide and be empowered to go "off script".

Julia: To moderate a focus group is not to read from a list of questions that have been prepared. Not just anyone can facilitate because truly is a facilitation and not a question and answer.

Pam: I know it has happened to us—there are times you go off-script because something so important and compelling has come up that we must explore it.

Julia: I'm taking issue with the word script, too. We call it that, but it is a discussion guide.

Pam: I'm glad you corrected me on that.

Julia: A guide gives us the freedom to pursue other paths. As you say, "go off script".  It's OK and encouraged.

Quotable Quotes

Pam: There a lot of positives, but there are also some negatives, too. It sometimes worries me that when I think about focus groups, I'm always thinking about the opportunities they afford. I'm not as sensitive to how they can shape my opinion as a researcher in a way that makes it more difficult for me to step back later and do a more objective assessment.

Julia: It is so much easier for us to remember the quotable things that are said. At a point we must step back and remind ourselves, "Was that the feel of the group?  Was that what we heard again and again?"  We stumble across this in online surveys as well when we dive into the open-ended questions. We'll remember, "Oh gosh, I had to wait five months for that book I wanted."  Just because someone complains or celebrates the loudest doesn't mean that they captured the will of the group.

Ellen: What's memorable is often not the most representative of the full tone.

Pam: But it gives color and texture, and it is always fun to grab those quotes later.

Julia: Use that weakness to our advantage—we know we'll remember the quotes.

Pam: But they also plump up reports especially if the quote is in conversational language or somehow is a pithy comment that summarizes other comments.

Julia: So, it's a minus of a focus group that can also be a positive.

Pam: Absolutely!

What are other limitations of focus groups?

A single voice can dominate a focus group.

Julia: What are other limitations to keep in mind as we conduct focus groups?

Pam: Ahh! The individual who dominates the conversation. This is one of the real challenges for a moderator. You can't foresee if you're going to have the mouse in the corner who rarely speaks. It is the moderator's responsibility to make sure that everyone in the room has an opportunity to participate. One person not only can have the loudest voice, but they can sway the whole conversation.

Julia: They can shut things down quickly.

Pam:  It's a negative that sometimes can make the exercise very difficult.

Julia: This may be a reason to do three focus groups. If the first focus group was dominated by a flame thrower....

Professional or personal prejudices can shut down conversations.

Pam: Exactly. Or if you have room full of very quiet individuals. The way a person walks into the room, the way they are dressed...all those factors lead people to characterize or stereotype other participants, and we don't know to what extent someone feels intimidated or someone may feel they need to patronize or over-explain. The relationships between people within the room can often reflect larger societal prejudices, attitudes, and interactions.

Ellen: Typically at the beginning of these sessions, we introduce ourselves and go around the room, "Tell us your name. What do you do?" Depending on someone's role professionally or personally, that can sometimes shut down the conversation.

Pam: That's where smart recruiting comes in.

Location and time will limit who is able to participate.

Julia: Even with the best recruiting, there still is the challenge of bringing people together in one space. I don't want to get too deep into the operations of a focus group, but I do think it is important for us to recognize that when you have an ask of, "I want you to come to the library, park there, and give us an hour of your time" that certainly impacts the types of people who are able to participate. Especially time of day and day of the week.

Pam: Especially in strategic planning. By the way, focus groups can be used for a variety of product and service line offerings that could have to do with developing new outreach initiatives. They are particularly useful in strategic planning but they are not necessarily the soundest basis for really hard decisions. They lay the groundwork and help establish the context. They give a sense of what themes should be explored in subsequent research.

Every group is different.

Julia: Pam and Ellen, you've conducted quite a few focus groups lately. Any funny stories to share?

Pam: That's a good question. I do think when you conduct them with different ethnic groups, you're not prepared sometimes for how you are treated. A focus group I did with a Hispanic group from a particular country came to feel as if I had become a long-lost sister. It was wonderful! I want to contrast that with another ethnic group which I will not name. When I went in there, it was much more formal. It was a culture that did not necessarily volunteer information.

Julia: More guarded.

Pam: Right.

Ellen: That is tough. I'm thinking about a focus group that you and I jointly facilitated this past spring. Two back to back. One was very lively. No one in the room knew each other until they entered the room but there were synergies between participants, commonalities, relationships were formed, etc. And in the second one, crickets were chirping. The work you had to do in that focus group.... maybe because it was late in the day, 6:30 at night, maybe a tough commute for people?  I recall you kept asking the big take-away question repeatedly in different formats, and it just didn't happen. That's not particularly a funny story, but we were dancing, and no one was coming to the party. Sometimes you just don't know.

Pam: It may have been that we were not asking the right questions. We didn't review the discussion guide afterwards to assess that.

Ellen: I recall by virtue of the fact that we couldn't get an answer to that particular question it answered the question.

Pam: You're right. The inability to answer the question indicated what they didn't know.

Ellen: It indicated a real area of concern in that particular institution's framework.

Be sensitive to timing, place, amenities, and refreshment needs.

Pam: Here's a focus group my partner Nancy conducted. Everyone in the group was much older. The topic had to do with rehabilitation services. It had to be at breakfast, and you had to serve them breakfast. She had individuals in the room who couldn't hear. That was a challenge. There was a lot of repeating. People had to get up to use the facilities many times. It was a group with specific needs and physical limitations over which she had no control whatsoever. I remember it went on much too long.

Why not conduct an online forum instead?

Ellen: When you reference those sorts of logistical challenges, or to Julia's point, the difficulty in recruiting people—maybe I need babysitter, maybe I need to get off work—I've been asked before at the end of focus groups, "Why did you do focus groups? You only conducted two or only conducted three". "Did you consider conducting online type forums to not only have more people participate but eliminate some of those barriers to participation such as time, transportation, etc.?" It is an interesting concept particularly with the technology available.

Pam: They can be done that way. But I think eyeball-to-eyeball is best.

Ellen: And that has been my answer. What you lose with an online forum is the inherent value of face-to-face, the interaction between people, the body language, the eye contact, the commonality of shared experience. I don't think the end result can be accomplished through technology.


Pam: Focus groups? An invaluable tool in the right circumstances, well-executed, and in the context of other research that can solidify quantitatively what you heard.

Julia: Let's bring people together through focus groups.

Pam: Well, we've done it and we'll do it again!

Julia: Thank you for listening to another episode of Advancing America's Libraries. If you have any topic requests, tweet us @IvyGroup or email contact@ivygroup.com. We'll be at the Public Libraries Association Conference in Nashville! Come say hello!

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