Focus Groups

What are Focus Groups?

Focus groups are a great way to gain insight into the needs and opinions of the people you serve.  Generally they are a group of 6-10 similar people who are willing to meet for 45-90 minutes to provide feedback on your services within the context of their own needs. Your library or organization may use surveys and other assessment tools to measure your effectiveness.  Focus groups are a great way to follow up with specific details and action items to improve service.

Focus Groups:  The Pre Work

Focus groups are one of those things that are easy to run well if you do some behind-the-scenes work up front.  There are three essential things to do before hand

  1. Identify a list of 8-10 questions that will keep discussion focused.  What are the things you want information on from this group?
  2. Determine who you will invite, how to invite them, location for meetings and compensation. You don’t need to provide a huge amount of compensation, but it’s nice to have an answer for the question, “what will I get out of this” (even if that answer is simply, “improved service.”  It is even nicer to provide them with a small token or snacks during the focus group.
  3. Find two people not connected to your organization to run the focus groups.  Why not connected to your organization? You want the focus groups to be open, honest and not defensive.  With someone outside of your organization participants may feel more free to be honest.  With someone outside of your organization you can protect against the focus group becoming a session someone explaining why certain choices have been made.  Why two people?  One person facilitates the group and the other records what is said.  It is best to make an actual recording of the session to transcribe later but if this is not possible notes are essential.  Don’t have funds to hire a consultant?  You can ask someone from a separate department or better yet offer to run focus groups for a local colleague if he or she will do the same for you.

Focus Groups: The Work

During each focus group meeting the facilitator encourages and manages the discussion with the goal of generating the maximum number of ideas from the largest variety of people.  I like to take notes on a flip chart to supplement the recording.

Your participants should be “heterogeneous strangers.”  This means that the people should be similar in terms of the people you serve (“senior citizens” or “graduate students” or “faculty” should be grouped together) but they shouldn’t be people who know each other well.  For that reason it is usually a good idea to avoid pre-formed groups.  Keep in mind that you will run groups until you stop hearing new ideas which usually means scheduling 3-5 groups.  So this means you will need to invite 30-60 people to 3-5 specific sessions.  This will improve your chances of having groups of a useful size.

The facilitator keeps the conversation going.  They keep it neutral, not commenting on suggestions but merely taking them on board.  The types of questions that are most useful are ones that fully get at a challenge or pain point for the user.  Then the experts at your organization can determine how best to address those issues.

Focus Groups:  The Post Work

After the focus groups are over the real work begins.  The data collected in the sessions needs to be collected in a usable way.  Generally this involves “coding” the responses (tagging the responses into categories) and  ranking the most common responses to the questions by type of user and answer. Then your organization can begin to make an action plan based on the information learned.

Focus groups are fairly simple to run and can help you to learn a lot about how to best serve your users.  More information can be found in a great 13 page report on how to run focus groups published by Duke University.

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