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So You Have to Moderate a Focus Group - Five Things to Know Before Your First Group

qualitative / focus group / featured / blog

When a good moderator leads a focus group, it can look effortless. However, building rapport with respondents, managing the flow of the discussion, and probing respondents to get beyond surface-level responses are skills that require both training and experience. That’s why we recommend, whenever possible, having a professional moderator conduct your focus groups. But projects don’t always go according to plan, and you may end up in a situation where you have to moderate, whether you’re ready or not. If you’ve been thrown into the moderating deep end, focusing on these five key things can help your groups go smoothly.

  1. Be as familiar as possible with the materials and the research goals.
    When you’re in the room with your participants, you want to be focused on them and not on the papers in front of you. Make sure that you have thoroughly studied your discussion guide and have a clear understanding of what the client wants to get out of the group. This will ensure that you’re not frantically flipping through pages in the middle of group, trying to remember what comes next or looking for the wording for a particular probe. It can help to make your own notes on your discussion guide, or to use highlighters or flags to draw attention to certain questions or instructions. You can even reformat the guide materials into a layout that makes sense to you.
  2. Focus Group Minds
  3. Be open, welcoming, and non-judgmental.
    The most important job you have as a moderator is creating an atmosphere in which respondents feel free to share and speak honestly. Participants should never feel judged, or in a competition to be interesting, or that they have disappointed you by not saying something specific. To create this atmosphere, you should maintain what instructors at the RIVA Training Institute call an “unconditional positive regard.” This involves remaining neutral and positive about whatever your participants say. If a respondent tells you that all military members live in tents, you should avoid expressing surprise (“Really? That’s what you think?”) or admiration (“Well, that is very interesting.), or correcting them (“Actually, members of the military don’t . . .”). So what can you do? Smile, nod, and say the most neutral things possible in response—it may feel repetitive to you, but it lets participants know that they are free to say anything.
  4. Ask open-ended questions to get as much detail from the group as possible.
    As the moderator, the thing that you will do most in the group is ask questions. But the questions that will get the most detailed, layered responses from your group are not those you would use in a normal conversation or in other types of research. If you were talking with friends about a commercial you’d seen, you might put your own opinion into your question: “That was a crazy commercial, wasn’t it?” If you were writing questions for a survey you would use precise wording with specific answer options: “How satisfied were you with the amount of information provided in the commercial?” In a focus group, you want to ask very open-ended, neutral questions, offering respondents the opportunity to share their thoughts without leading them in a particular direction. If you were asking a group about a commercial, you might ask:
    • What did you think about that commercial?
    • How do you feel about what we just saw?
    • What are your reactions to that?
    • Could you tell me more about your thoughts on that?
    Question should be open-ended even in situations where the goal of the question is to get at something very specific. If you wanted to know if the group responded positively to an actor in a commercial, you wouldn’t start out with, “Did you like the man in the ad?” Rather, you could begin with the more general questions, to see whether group members raised the issue on their own. If they did, you could then probe on that specific topic (“You mentioned the man featured in the commercial—could you tell me more about that?”). If the actor didn’t come up in the course of the discussion, you could direct the group that way while remaining neutral: “What did you think about the people featured in the ad?” And even if one of the group members specifically said, “I liked him,” you could get more information by asking open-ended follow-up questions:
    • Could you tell me more about how you felt about him?
    • What did you like about him?
    • When you say you “like” him, what does that mean to you?
    • Do other people agree or disagree?
  5. Keep an eye on time.
    Most focus group discussion guides cover a lot of material in a limited amount of time, and the typical guide structure starts with general questions and grows more specific as the group goes on. This means that often the most important material is at the end of the group, so you will need to keep the group moving in order to cover all the key items. One way to do this is by making a note of the main discussion areas and the time cues you will need to reference during the group. A note for a group starting at 6:00 PM could read:
    • 6:00—Intro and Icebreaker
    • 6:05—General Career Plans
    • 6:20—Sources/Techniques for Job Searches
    • 6:35—Review of Potential Job Hunt Materials
    • 7:00—Show New App and Get Feedback
    • 7:25—Wrap Up/Thank You/Additional Comments
    If discussion in one area is going well, you don’t have to stick exactly to this schedule. But this can remind you that if one section runs long, you will need to make up time or cut something later in the group.
  6. FMG Focus Group
  7. You can steer the ship.
    Finally, keep in mind that you’re the leader of the conversation. In the vast majority of focus groups, the participants want to follow your cues. While you don’t want to run the group like an interrogation, you should speak up when something needs to happen:
    • If someone isn’t participating, say, “Susan, you haven’t had a chance to say much, what do you think about that?”
    • If someone is being too overbearing, say, “Thanks for your thoughts on that, but I do want to make sure that we get to hear from everyone.”
    • If it’s obvious that the group is bored by something, you can say, “I know this is isn’t the most exciting stuff, but I really do want to hear what you think and I have a few more questions before we move onto something else.”
    • Or if the whole group is engaged in a discussion or activity but you need to move on, say, “This is such a great discussion I hate to stop it, but we have to move on now or we won’t have time to get to everything.”
    • If you’re having a technical problem, or there’s something wrong with the room (too hot, too cold, too noisy), admit it and try to fix it.

And remember to enjoy yourself! Having a good excuse for being nosy and asking people questions can be lots of fun, and if you’re enjoying yourself, chances are your participants will relax and have fun, too.


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