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Update – Respecting Your Participants: Ethical Considerations in Focus Groups

focus group / market research / research design / featured / blog / qualitative

Focus groups, unlike some other forms of research, can feel quite informal. In fact, some of the best groups can look more like a table of friends chatting than a formal data collection effort. However, researchers always need to remember that focus groups (as well as one-on-one interviews and other qualitative methods) are research, and the same ethical requirements apply. If you’re working with a governmental agency or a university, you may need to have your project reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or by the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). But even when your focus group effort does require these formal reviews, it is still important for researchers to remember their ethical responsibility to their participants.

The most fundamental ethical behavior and the heart of any research project is informed consent—your participants should know that they are part of a research process, and you should be honest about what you’re studying. Anyone doing research should be aware of and knowledgeable about informed consent, and should ensure that any research project meets these standards. More detailed information is available from the Department of Health and Human Services.

But beyond formal IRB reviews and informed consent forms, there are some very basic, practical ways that moderators and research staff can ensure that the day-to-day practice of conducting qualitative research is treating participants in an ethical manner.

  • Be respectful when speaking about participants. It can be tempting for moderators and observers to sit in the back room and pass judgment or make jokes about participants. Sometimes participants say unexpected or funny things, and sometimes observers hearing negative feedback about their product or idea may have an emotional reaction. Regardless of the reason, be aware of the tone of your discussion in the back room and during analysis and reporting—it is disrespectful to laugh at or make fun of the very people who are allowing you to conduct this research.
  • Avoid showing them how they’re wrong. A simple way to learn about participants’ awareness and knowledge of an issue or product is by asking participants if they know something. If you are going to do this, try not to immediately follow up with, "Well, actually, the real answer is . . ." Your participants aren’t there to be quizzed or tested, and shouldn’t be made to feel ignorant.
  • Don’t create unnecessary tension in groups. Ensuring participants are comfortable enough to share their thoughts and opinions is one of the key roles of the moderator. Avoid creating tension and setting up any potential hierarchies within the group, particularly in the icebreaker and warm-up exercises—for example, be wary of starting off by asking a socioeconomically diverse group about their occupations or teenagers about their favorite band.
  • Don’t try to sell them things. It can be easy to see your participants as a perfect set of customers or an ideal end user group for your product or service—after all, you probably put a lot of effort in recruiting a group that exactly represents your customers or stakeholders. But the purpose of the focus group is to hear what they have to say, not to market to them or sell them on your idea. Don’t hand out product information and don’t ask people if they want to sign up for anything, even after the group is over.
  • Don’t try to teach them things. Again, the purpose of the group is to learn from your participants. You can offer participants contact information or resources to use if they have questions after the group—especially important if you’re discussing a sensitive topic or working with an at-risk population—but make sure that this is only providing support, not trying to change their opinions or behavior
  • Make sure they know that participating is their choice. You should always inform participants, in your introduction as well in any informed consent or info material, that their participation is voluntary and they never have to answer any questions. In groups discussing particularly sensitive topics, you may want to make that very explicit: “You’re free to leave the group at any time—people have left in the past and it doesn’t hurt my feelings!” You don’t want participants to feel trapped in a situation that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Protect their privacy in the community. Typically, focus groups are recruited so that participants in a group don’t know each other. But depending on the subject or the market size, you could end up with friends, acquaintances, or even relatives in the same group. Be careful when asking people to reveal things that could affect them later. If there is sensitive information you’d like to collect, consider asking these questions in homework or using in-group questionnaires, so participants don’t have to say it in front of the group.
  • Protect their privacy in final reporting.Your participants should have completed a release form prior to the focus group or interview, but that doesn’t mean that they consented to having video clips or quotes put on YouTube or on a billboard. Video should be kept within the research team or the intended audience of a final report, unless identities are disguised. Similarly, personally identifiable information should be removed from quotes if there’s any possibility it will be distributed past the immediate research audience for the materials.
  • And finally, end your groups on time. Your participants have taken time out of their day to come to an event and were given a scheduled ending time. It doesn’t matter if things got started late, or if you didn’t cover all the material, or if the group is still saying interesting things. People have babysitters to get home to and buses to catch: end the group when you told them you would.

Essentially, all of these behaviors boil down to respecting your participants. Focus group members may be volunteers and may be getting paid, but they are still offering up their time, effort, and experience, and qualitative research would not be possible without them. Make sure that your behavior goes beyond just meeting the legal requirements, and shows your participants respect for what they are offering.

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