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Focus Group Best Practices: Homework

qualitative / focus group / blog

Typically, a qualitative research interview or focus group consists of strictly the data that is collected from your participants during a focus group or interview. But you can also ask participants to complete a “homework” assignment before they even get to the group. Homework assignments can be assets to your project, because they can help you:

  • Collect additional data without taking up time during the group or session itself.
  • Gets your participants engaged with the topic matter before they get to the group. As a result, you may be able to jump more quickly into the main discussion once the actual group or interview starts.
  • Weed out participants that won’t be engaged, or tip you off to who might be a no-show earlier in the process.

Homework can be anything from providing some basic data online to creating a piece of art to discuss with the group. Some examples could include:

  • Online Questionnaire: Having participants log into an online survey and respond to questions will allow you to you get basic data from every participant, without having to take time during the group to ask each question of each person. It can also be a useful if there is sensitive data that participants might not want to discuss in front of strangers.
  • Show and Tell:Ask participants to bring in a photo, picture from a magazine, or a small item that represents themselves, another person, an idea, or a concept. You can then start your discussion by having participants talk about their item.
  • Collage: While you don’t want to discourage participants who don’t consider themselves artistic by asking for anything too ambitious, a small collage or image board created from magazine or catalog pictures should be a reasonable activity for most people and can be a good discussion starter. Plus, you can keep the collages after the groups and use them in your report.
  • Time Diary:Asking participants to keep track of what they do in a day or in a week, or how many times they do a certain activity, can both spark discussion and provide you with valuable lifestyle data.

If you’re going to assign homework, just keep a few things in mind.

  • Homework doesn’t replace your qualitative research, but complements it.While you may be excited about getting additional data from participants, don’t try to cover EVERYTHING in the homework. You most likely decided to use focus groups (or interviews) for your research because they could provide the best answer to your research questions. Homework is intended to supplement those methods, not turn a qualitative project into a survey research effort. Plus, you want to keep the homework manageable for participants.
  • Homework may prime participants. In some focus groups, you may want to hear from your participants about certain issues or ideas before introducing another topic or revealing the sponsor of the group. Be aware that any homework activity is tipping them off to what they might talk about in the group, so think about the ordering of your discussion and the homework content carefully.
  • It may require a different incentive structure. Offering incentives to participants is a way of showing them that you know their time is valuable and you appreciate their efforts. If you ask them to do a homework assignment that will take an hour (or more!) in addition to the session time, you should make sure that your incentive reflects that. Even if the homework isn’t that time consuming, having even a small piece of the incentive connected to homework completion will help signal to your participants that this is something they should take seriously.
  • Have a plan for participants who don’t do their homework. Every project and recruiting situation is different—sometimes it’s going to be critical that a homework assignment is done, while other times you will be focused on getting as many participants into the room as possible. Establish early on whether you will accept participants who have not completed the homework. In some cases, it may be possible for an assignment to be completed in the waiting room before the session, so be sure to have extra materials on hand.
  • Make sure your recruiters are clear about what participants need to do. Make sure that the people recruiting your participants understand what the homework assignment is, how it affects the incentives, and whether it must be done in order to participate. Miscommunication at the recruiting stage can sink a homework assignment before it even starts.


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