First, however, let’s look at some of the benefits of focus groups, and some of their drawbacks.
In several ways, focus groups can solicit answers that you wouldn’t necessarily see from surveys. Some employees may type short answers when they’re filling out a survey, for example, yet they have much more to say when they’re articulating their answers to the same question out loud.
Focus groups also have the advantage of letting the facilitator ask follow-up questions for more information. When focus group participants hear other people’s responses, that may trigger opinions or thoughts that wouldn’t occur to them if they were filling out a survey individually.
Focus groups, however, are limited since they involve a much smaller number of people. They can also take a lot of time to plan and implement. They shouldn’t take the place of surveys. Instead, they should be used as one of many tools you can use to improve your department. Certified Listening Professional Susan Eliot suggests that focus groups can be a good overall starting point for feedback if you’re not sure what to ask on a survey. Using focus group results, you can then identify what issues a survey would need to discuss.
To hold a successful focus group, there are several things to keep in mind.
How will you get people interested? Free food is always a strong motivator, so providing lunch is a good idea. But don’t forget the attraction of other rewards, like company merchandise or gift cards.
The focus group should be held in areas where it’s easy for participants to see and hear each other—conference rooms are an ideal spot. To keep the process manageable, each session should involve around 10-12 participants. The focus group should take around one to two hours and focus on four or five questions.
Many of the same rules that apply to survey questions also apply to focus groups. Questions should be open-ended. Each question should only contain one idea. And they should start with the general, then lead to the specific. The one exception is that focus group questions should not include what are called “cued questions.” These are questions that present a range of options, i.e. “Which of these methods are you most likely to use to notify facilities of a problem? Email, phone, work order or some other method?”
For the facilitator role, you’ll want to choose an unbiased party who is also a good listener. Participants may not feel comfortable expressing their opinions if the person facilitating is also a member of the very department that’s being discussed. Ask someone from a different department, like HR, to facilitate.
When you send out invitations to participate in the focus group—and again, when the group convenes—explain what kind of information you’re looking for, and your reasons for seeking it out. Let participants know how you plan to keep their answers anonymous. (You may want to outsource transcription to an outside service.)
Focus groups can be a useful way to get qualitative information from your colleagues. These tips, which can serve as a basic guide as you plan your focus group strategy, were provided by resources via Health and Safety Executive, the Office of Quality Improvement at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Purdue University. Click each link to get more information on setting up a focus group.
photo credit: François @ Edito.qc.ca via photopin cc