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How To Write a Focus Group Discussion Guide the Right Way

how to write a focus group discussion guide

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I’ve been attending focus group discussions for over a decade now. It all started when I was looking for a side gig back in college.

I have stumbled upon it while looking for potential income sources online. I didn’t really care much about it at first. I had this “as long as it pays” type of mindset for the longest time.

The more I participated, though, the more I understood its potential and necessity. I slowly found myself transitioning from a person answering questions to a facilitator who asked them.

I realized that the experience of participating in focus groups gave me enough knowledge that small business owners might find helpful. And so here we are.

Allow me to share with you some pointers on how to write a focus group discussion guide that you or your facilitator can follow to make the most of your sessions.

What Is a Focus Group Discussion?

But first, what is a focus group discussion? In a nutshell, it is a market research method held between many participants and a facilitator to explore the opinions of the chosen representatives of a target demographic regarding a particular product or service.

A focus group discussion is usually held in a purpose viewing facility, a location specifically structured for conducting market research. It can also be done in other similar venues or even online, depending on the needs and objectives of the market researcher or business conducting it.

It can be a single session or a span of meetings until they meet the objective of the discussion. Most importantly, a focus group discussion is only possible through the strategic asking of questions by a facilitator that moderates the session.

That is definitely the main challenge of any facilitator. It’s not the venue nor the location of the participants. It’s making the guide that will determine the flow of conversation and reveal the honest opinion of participants.

How To Write a Focus Group Discussion Guide

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Allow me to walk you through the main steps I do when preparing a focus group discussion guide for my clients. Please keep in mind that there are times when I switch things up, depending on the objectives I want to achieve.

1. Determine Your Goal

If this is your first time conducting a focus group discussion, then chances are you’re doing so to determine the viability of a new product or service. However, focus groups can accomplish other things, like gauging brand awareness and perception or uncovering new information about competitors.

Whatever it is, it is essential to determine your goals before constructing your guide. In this way, you have a clear path on how you want to guide the conversation. While you don’t want to influence your participants’ responses in any way, you still want to make sure that the session stays on track.

2. Define Your Guidelines

You can move on to define your guidelines using your goals as a reference. It will contain the points that you want your facilitator to keep in mind during the session. Here are some of the points I include in my focus group discussion guides:

  • Two researchers should ideally be present at all times. One of them will serve as the facilitator who will directly interact with the group. The other’s role is to make notes of the responses, facial expressions, and other necessary cues.
  • You must record the session at all times. Remind the participants about this before starting the recording device.
  • You must ask all participants to give verbal consent before the session and after initiating the recording, even if they have already given their written consent.
  • Participants should be encouraged to speak their thoughts freely and reminded that they have the option to refuse a question or stop their participation at any point of the session.
  • Remind them to keep their phones on silent and speak one at a time to keep the recording clear and audible.
  • Finally, as a facilitator, you may use the provided outline and questions to guide the conversation. However, don’t let it limit you from further probing.

Your guideline can also include any specific details such as the discussion venue, the number of sessions required, and the honorarium or compensation agreed upon initially.

Take your time when you’re drafting your guidelines, especially if you’re doing so for the first time, as you don’t want to miss anything important.

tips on how to write a focus group discussion guide

3. Create an Outline for Your Focus Group Discussion

The next part of my guide is my preferred outline of the session. If I’m going to be the facilitator, I usually just list down my intended flow in bullet points. It will look something like this:

  • Welcome the participants
  • Introductions
  • Ice breaker
  • Questions and planned activities
  • Confirmation and integrating ideas
  • Outro

I also indicate the ideal duration of each point and include a short break for longer sessions.

I make my outline a little bit more detailed if I’m not going to serve as the facilitator. I usually flesh out my questions and planned activities in detail on separate pages. If that’s the case, then I indicate the page numbers on my outline as well for the convenience of the facilitator.

4. Create Focus Group Discussion Questions

Let’s now move on to the questions. It is the most important part of your guide and the driving mechanism of focus group discussions. We can classify these questions into three main types, namely:

  • Probe Questions

These are questions intended to obtain the information that you need from the participants. To keep them neutral, these questions are kept open-ended. Avoid questions that can be answered by a yes or a no. I also don’t recommend phrases such as “how satisfied are you” or “to what extent”.

  • Follow-Up Questions

These are questions intended to get more details from participants’ earlier answers. They also let participants choose between options or give their opinions about recently completed activities.

  • Exit Questions

Finally, exit questions seek to confirm things, summarize thoughts, and ask participants anything they wish to say or ask about the topic.

5. Consider Adding Activities

You can also formulate activities that can further contribute to your session’s success. Below are my favorites that you can try.

  • Role-Playing

This is an ideal activity if you wish your participants to explore various possibilities. For instance, what would happen if a participant suddenly got the chance to raise their social status.

Would they still prefer a particular product or service? What would they change? How would they act?

  • Draw a Picture

Drawing pictures is a great activity for topics that can’t really be fully expressed with words. This way, your participant won’t be having a time or get stressed out.

  • Fill in the Blank

Allowing your participants to take their time in responding to your questions can sometimes yield inaccurate answers. The solution? A fast round of good ol’ fill in the blank. You can even give them a time limit if you further want to prevent overthinking.

6. Complete Your Guide

I usually list down all the questions that I plan to ask, organized neatly into different categories. I also write down the materials and procedures of my planned activities in chronological order for easy reference.

I also list down the essential points that will help the analysis process that (ideally) happens after the session. This will depend on the goals of the discussion or include any criteria required by the client. For instance, did the client provide a specific format for the report?

Other Focus Group Discussion Strategies

Having a guide will definitely help your focus group discussion run smoothly. That said, below are other tips that you might want to keep in mind to ensure its success.

Keep Your Participants Below 10

Do you still remember the law of diminishing returns back in econ class? Well, it applies to focus group discussions too.

“More people” doesn’t always translate to “more ideas”. In fact, it can even discourage other participants from speaking freely. My personal sweet spot is around five to six people.

Don’t Go Past 90 Minutes

Do you know what else doesn’t equate to “more ideas”? Yep, you’ve guessed it—more time. Running your focus group discussion for over 90 minutes can lead to participant fatigue.

Make Your Participants Comfortable, but Not Too Comfortable

Providing your participants with refreshments such as coffee and cookies will keep them comfortable and content. I don’t recommend crunchy snacks, though, as they can interfere with your recording. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Make sure their chairs are comfortable, but not to the point that will encourage them to doze off. Also, don’t forget to manage the thermostat. You want the temperature to be just right.

Make the environment open and conducive to creativity and communication.

Final Thoughts

Running a focus group discussion doesn’t have to be challenging. Everything should run smoothly as long as you have a reliable guide that your facilitator can simply follow during your sessions. I hope you’ve found my how to write a focus group discussion guide post helpful towards that end.

Good luck!

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