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Focus Group Best Practices: Writing Protocols

qualitative / focus group / blog

At the center of every qualitative project is the protocol, sometimes also called the moderator's guide, the discussion guide, or the script. This document establishes the structure of the group or interview, details the specific questions you will ask participants, and ultimately determines the kind of data you will be able to collect. It is also the guide that everyone working on the project will be using as they make their decisions-your clients will base their approval on the protocol content, the IRB will review it, and the moderator or interviewer will use it to guide the data collection process. The protocol is key to the success of your project, and keeping a few things in mind as you're writing it will help ensure that it is thorough and comprehensive.

  1. Make sure that your project goals and research questions are clear.
    It's easy to go into a qualitative project with only a general sense of what you want to know-for example, you could start a project saying, "We want to know what people think about ostriches." But you will be able to write better questions and construct more useful and targeted activities if you have specific, well-defined goals. Your protocol will be much stronger if you are able to start with, "We want to know how people think ostriches relate to their lives, how they would react to an ostrich in their home, and what we could do to make them happy to have an ostrich."
  2. Structure the discussion in a logical way.
    The typical protocol is divided into four sections:
    1. Introductions/Ice breaker (10-15 minutes)
      • Allow time for the moderator to introduce themselves, explain the purpose of the research, lay down any ground rules or guidelines, and allow participants to ask any questions.
      • An ice breaker is an initial question or activity intended to get participants talking, and it can be as simple as asking people a silly question (Where would you go on vacation if you could go anywhere? What's your favorite ice cream flavor?). You can also do a slightly more involved activity, such as having the group describe an ideal day (or something else high-level related to your topic), while the moderators writes answers on a flip chart and makes sure each participant speaks. Just avoid serious topics, or anything that could establish a sense of hierarchy in the group, such as asking what people do for a living.
    2. Opening conversations (about 15 minutes)
      • The initial discussion should ease the participants into the topic. Asking for general opinions on a high-level aspect of your topic allows participants to settle into the discussion, and provides you with a sense of their general understanding and feelings. In our group on ostriches, rather than jump into questions about what they would do if an ostrich showed up in their living room, we could start by asking participants how they feel about birds in general, then move into a discussion of ostriches.
    3. In-depth conversations (most of the remaining research time)
      • Once participants are talking and a general topic has been introduced, you can start asking more detailed questions that address your specific research question. Our ostrich group might use this section of the protocol to talk about benefits and drawbacks of ostriches in the home, or what kinds of information a consumer might want about ostriches.
      • This section should not be a single stretch of conversation on a topic-try to break up your in-depth investigations into 15- or 20-minute pieces focusing on different topics or different activities. This will help keep participants engaged.
    4. Conclusion (5 minutes)
      • The conclusion of your group doesn't need to take long, but be sure to allow time to thank that participants and ask whether they have anything else they'd like to share.
      • This is also an opportunity to see whether any observers have follow-up questions they'd like asked.
    These are general guidelines-your project may require a different structure, or may involve several cycles of opening and in-depth conversations. Just keep the overall structure of the protocol in mind as you're writing it. The goal is for the data collection to have a natural progression for participants, moving from more general discussion to more in-depth topics.
  3. If possible, have your moderator participate in the creation of the guide.
    Often, the research team on a project will construct and finalize a protocol with the client, and the moderator comes in at the end of the process. But even in cases where the moderator does not have the same content background as the research team, it can still be helpful to involve them in protocol development. Your moderator will have a sense of what sorts of questions or activities will and won't work, and may be able to suggest creative ways to ask questions. The moderator may also be able to point out logistical issues with a protocol.
  4. Remember that the protocol is not the only material you may need.
    Depending on your research plan, a focus group or interview might include handouts, questionnaires, images to review, or other supplemental materials. These will also need to be reviewed by the client and possibly approved by an IRB or OMB, so be sure to work on these early on in the process. Developing supplemental materials at the same time as the protocol can also ensure that you have time to format those and make them engaging for the participants, and gives the moderator a chance to review and make suggestions.

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