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How to Design and Use a Research Focus Group

Updated on July 23, 2014

Focus groups reach potential clients and consumers for their feedback and comments.


Companies use a focus group to determine consumer perception or opinions about a specific product, service, or idea. Though a qualitative research form, focus groups can provide a useful look into a company’s activities. In some cases, companies may even ask questions about their marketing or advertising campaigns and product packaging. The design and use of these groups depends on the company’s need and immediately available resources. Large companies with multiple locations, however, may be able to conduct several regional focus groups that collect qualitative data from multiple sources, including some from different ethnic groups.

When to Use Focus Groups:

A wide and diverse number of opinions is necessary prior to making a decision.

You need better understanding about a complex business issue.

Other people's insights, feelings, or perceptions will help define an issue or solve a problem.

Outside experts are needed to give professional opinions on a technical problem.

You have several probing, open-ended questions which need answers from other people.

Further resources for designing and using focus group research:

Types of Focus Groups

The use of a moderator is a common focus group design. Here, a company selects an individual to lead the focus group and ensure the participants work through all questions. The moderator may be a company employee or a third party. Some variations are available under the moderator-led focus group. For example, a dual moderator session uses one individual to move the group through every questions and a second individual to move the group throughout the entire focus group session. The dueling moderator style pits two moderators on opposite sides of an issue. In short, one takes a positive approach and the other a negative approach.

Client-style focus groups include a company’s customers (or potential customers) in the qualitative information session. This helps a company determine if new products, services, or marketing campaigns will reach a broader client base or customer group. This method allows for a covert or overt approach. Companies may engage clients without them realizing they are in a focus group or the company may disclose this fact up front. Either way, the format will usually be fairly similar.

Face-to-face focus groups are not the only option. Companies may use a teleconference method by way of standard telephone networks. While this approach does not allow for gauging an individual’s non-verbal cues, it does provide some outside information on items or issues. The use of a standard, open-ended questionnaire is usually the tool designed and used for gathering information.

Technological advancements allow companies to use the internet to conduct focus groups. Video conferencing, file sharing, or data transfer tools are all options here. Again, non-verbal cues are not possible here, unless using a broad videoconferencing tool. However, companies can gather large amounts of information from a wider range of groups using technology.

Note Taker
This focus group method is typically the least involved, at least for the company. A business may select a few group participants and place them in an easily observable location. After giving the participants some basic instructions, they are left alone to work through the group. The company simply has an employee observe and document the group’s conduct. This may be done covertly. For example, having the note taker or others sit behind a two-way mirror allows for unobtrusive viewing by the company’s staff.

Selecting the best focus group format is a crucial step for success.


The history and use of focus groups.

Sample Focus Group Questions:
“When you think about green energy, what is the first thing that comes to mind?”
“What do you like best about product X?”
“What are the biggest problems with brand X?”
“What brands come to mind?”
“Please think about smart-phones. What comes to mind?”
“You mentioned Nokia. What about Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson?”
“What car do you drive?”
*Courtesy of

Focus Group Design

Setup - Company
Companies should select a moderator as the first part of the focus group design process. Additional staff for this meeting may also be selected during this time. The company’s executive staff should also define the moderator’s role. Unofficial moderator styles and/or roles include the seeker of wisdom, expert consultant, challenger, or referee. The moderation style should correlate closely to the focus group designs listed above.

After selecting the moderator and his role, the company’s management team may need to create a pre-session strategy. The strategy should define any information the company desires from the group session. Additionally, options for on-the-fly adjustments or alterations to the focus group session may also need inclusion. Options for follow-up meetings or future group sessions can be a part of the initial strategy.

Creating questions and developing a script are two important parts of the pre-session strategy. In a two-hour focus group, four to seven questions are common. These include one or two introductory questions followed by a few serious questions on the issue at hand. The script typically outlines the time spent on introducing the focus group process, participants, and format. It also details the time spent on answering questions and the closing comments. Companies may not disclose the script to participants.

Setup - Participants
The composition of a focus group is important. Companies should decide the age and age range, sex, ethnicity, and background for potential participants. While these factors will most certainly differ based on the nature of the focus group, each one is essential to a successful venture.

Another issue to consider is how to select each participant. Oftentimes, companies will use a randomization technique in order to reduce bias. This ensures the focus group will be an organic source of information. Cost and quality is also a concern here. A company can spend large amounts of money on focus groups. However, the cost versus benefit discussion starts here. Allowing a focus group session to exceed the costs of standard marketing analysis generally results in reduced monetary results for the activity.

Finally, group size should also be a consideration. Too few opinions limit a company’s understanding of how consumers perceive its actions. Excessive group size can result in information overload. It may also be too difficult to control and move through the designed group format. On average, six to 10 participants is sufficient for focus groups. This allows everyone to participate and provide diverse opinions.

Multiple individuals should take part in the focus group follow-up stage.


Focus Group Follow-up

The end of the focus group is not the final step in this process. Company staff – including the moderator and other members – needs to complete at least three final steps. The first is to summarize the focus group. The moderator and/or note taker will be important here. Their notes and transcriptions of participant comments should be a large part of the group summary.

Reading and reviewing the focus group summaries is the next follow-up phase. This will most often include the company’s marketing department and executive staff. The moderator and note taker should be available to answer questions, look for trends, and evaluate comments. This may or may not take place immediately after the focus group session. It should be as close to the focus group process as possible, however. This ensures no valuable information is lost during the follow-up stage.

Finally, an employee should write a final report for the focus group. This both summarizes and concludes the session. Any survey results or final conclusions should be in this report. The moderator may include surveys taken from each focus group participant as well. This allows the final report to lead to action on any gathered information. Or, the company can simply file the report and have it on hand for future use.


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