Focus Groups

Focus groups can useful when collecting qualitative data. This page will outline how you can design and conduct a focus group.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a small-group (6 to 10 people) discussion guided by a trained moderator. It is used to learn about opinions on a specific topic and to guide future action.

Characteristics of a focus group:

  • The moderator should collect ideas from different people.
  • Should ideally last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.
  • The questions are predetermined, but the discussion is free-flowing.

When should focus groups be used?

Focus groups are used for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • To understand issues identified through a larger, quantitative study.
  • To refine future surveys.
  • To get community’s input on a topic (e.g. effectiveness of a program).
  • To ask questions that can’t easily be asked or answered on a written survey (e.g. engage low-literacy population).

Before deciding to do a focus group: Is this the best approach? Sometimes, people don’t feel comfortable sharing their opinions/feelings with other people from their community because others might perceive them as vulnerable.

If you decide to conduct a focus group: Is this the only method you’ll use? Using a variety of tools may help you gain more insights concerning various issues refugees face. Limited resources may lead to fewer options, and focus groups are a great way to do qualitative data collection in a short amount of time.


1. Prepare
  • Establish goals. What do you hope to learn? What are the questions you’re hoping to answer? Examples include:
        1. “Which types of services do refugees access and use?
        2. Do their access and use of these services change over time? In what ways?
  • Find a skilled moderator or train staff to facilitate focus groups.
  • Meeting particulars. What day will the focus group take place? Where? What time? How long will it last?
  • Find a recorder.
  • Incentives. If potential participants don’t necessarily show interest in attending a focus group, consider using incentives. Examples include money; food and drink; public recognition; a later training opportunity. If necessary, consult with community members to identify what incentives are culturally appropriate.
  • Potential participants. Sometimes, it is easier for participants to talk openly when they don’t know each other but are alike. Consider the following:
  • Gender – Will refugee women feel comfortable discussing the topic in a mixed gender group? ƒ
  • Age – Would a young person feel intimidated by being included in a group of older adults? ƒ
  • Power – Would a refugee voice her opinion if she disagrees with a leader who is also present?
  • Think about the atmosphere you’re creating. Is it a problem for a potential donor to be in the room? Do you want a co-facilitator who is female? Will that help?
  • Prepare a list of 10-12 questions. They should be: ƒ
        1. Short, focused on one dimension each, and unambiguously worded.ƒ
        2. Non-threatening or embarrassing.
        3. Open-ended (use “whys” and “hows” ).
  • Make sure you have an interpreter.
  • Gather and review existing data e.g. reports, meeting minutes.

Below are some examples that can be adapted to different circumstances.

  • “What are some of your thoughts about what’s going on now in the refugee camp?”
  • “Would you say you are satisfied with the current situation?” (If so) “What are you satisfied with? Why is that?”
  • “Are there things you are dissatisfied with, that you would like to see changed?” (If so) “What are they? How should they change? What kinds of things would you like to see happen?”
Probes to get more information on a given question:

– “Can you say more about that?”

– “Can you give an example?”

– “Lama says X. How about the others. What do you think?”

– “Does anyone else have some thoughts on that?”

2. Implement: Conduct focus group
  • Ideally, a moderator facilitates the discussions and an assistant takes notes and runs the tape recorder.
The ideal focus group moderator has the following

traits: ƒ

– Can listen attentively with sensitivity and empathy. ƒ

– Can keep personal views and ego out of the facilitation.ƒ

– Is, ideally, someone the group can relate to but also give authority to, so she/he should remain neutral.

– Can appropriately manage challenging group dynamics.

– Should demonstrate active listening by paraphrasing and summarizing long, complex or ambiguous comments.

– Is familiar with the refugee community context.

– Encourage participation. Allow everyone to speak equally

The assistant moderator should:

ƒ- Run a tape recorder during the session. ƒ

– Take notes in case the recorder fails or the tape is inaudible. ƒ

– Note/record body language or other subtle but relevant clues. ƒ

– Allow the moderator to do all the talking during the group.

  • An icebreaker can be used to increase comfort.
  • Start with the big picture and then dive deeper into the most critical issues. Below are some suggested exercises that could help you do that.

  • When a conversation feels powerful, stick with it! Use your best judgment in terms of when to move from topic to topic. Your goal first and foremost is to learn helpful information.
  • Present information about your organization if they are not already your clients.
  • When the focus group is complete, thank all participants and distribute incentives (if relevant).
  • Immediately after all participants leave, the moderator and assistant moderator debrief while the recorder is still running.
3. Analyze

This can be done in two ways:

  • For small studies/when you use multiple sources of data, it may be enough to identify key issues by listening to the tape and taking notes.
  • If you conduct multiple focus groups or rely only on focus group data to make conclusions, transcribe and code data.

Coding allows you to organize large amounts of text and to discover repeated ideas that would be difficult to detect by just listening to a tape or reading a transcript. Below is an example of a coding process:

a. Generate codes as you read responses. A code is a word/short phrase that sums up an idea, a sentence or even a longer piece of writing.

Write notes to yourself, of ideas or relationships between ideas; watch for special vocabulary that respondents use; count the number of times an idea was mentioned. The following is an example of a quote and its assigned code.

“There’s just no place in this country for illegal immigrants. Round them up and send those criminals back to where they came from.” XENOPHOBIA or


b. Eliminate overlapping or least important codes or combine them into categories. A category is a group of similar codes.

– Name Calling


Laughing at

Verbal Oppression

c. Examine the categories to generate themes. A theme is made up of multiple categories and requires analyzing the codes/code categories beyond what had been said during the focus groups. What common themes emerged in responses about specific topics? In the example below, people were talking about issues their children face. The person who coded the data realized that girls are more likely to be oppressed at school than boys and generated a theme based on this observation.

d. Use the themes to address the questions you set out to answer. Is additional data needed?

Throughout the coding and analyzing process consider these questions:

  • Were there deviations from the patterns? What might explain these deviations?
  • How do participants’ environments or past experiences relate to their behavior and attitudes?
  • What interesting stories emerged from the responses?
4. Present findings

Present the findings to other staff in the organization and/or refugee communities to inform program design or improvement. The presentation (either written or oral) should contain the following:

  1. Background information about the participants.
  2. Present the coding strategies used, the codes, categories, and themes.
  3. Support each theme with evidence from the data.
  4. Explain how the findings address the questions you set out to answer.