Five things about online focus groups

The ability to conduct focus groups online has been possible for a few years but lockdown forced us to use them exclusively. Here, our researcher discusses how they differ from more traditional methods

Focus groups, getting a group of citizens around a table (or virtual table!) to discuss an issue in depth, are a great way to engage and dig into issues in detail. When done well they can produce valuable insights into people’s thinking and participants generally enjoy them and appreciate the opportunity to give their views.

Although the technology to conduct focus groups online has been available for some years, digital methods were often seen as the poor relation of the traditional group setting, usually a local community centre or hotel where researchers would gather with a group of eight or ten people to spend an evening debating the issues of the day!

When the pandemic hit us in March it was clear that we would have to adapt our approach over the coming, what we hoped would be weeks but what has turned into, months.

How could we possibly take focus groups, hives of activity and rich discussions, and host them exclusively online?   Would participants want to take part? How would the importance of body language and eye contact be affected? How could we mix plenary discussions with small group ‘breakout’ discussions?

The past six months has taught me a huge amount about how to make digital focus groups successful. The five key things for me are:

  1. Attention spans

Four hours of binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix might be easy, but concentrating for more than an hour in an online focus group is really tough (for moderators and participants!).  In the old world a focus group would typically take ninety minutes to two hours but we’ve found anything more than an hour of online discussion is really testing for some participants.

  1. Technology isn’t for everybody

When the pandemic hit us, and we began to work remotely, conference calling became second nature; there were a few hiccups when sharing screens and webcams not working as well as they could but overall it has been a success.  But we shouldn’t assume that everyone is the same or even that most people have even heard of Zoom!  So, we really need to make sure that the digitally excluded are reached and able to participate. This may include training sessions to those who lack experience or confidence or offering the ability to join groups via more traditional phone in methods.  It’s more challenging to ensure balanced groups during COVID but not impossible!

  1. Groups need to be smaller

Although conversation is generally more free flowing and work in breakaway groups is easier in more traditional settings, online methods can be adapted and breakout groups are possible. But the need for shorter duration groups, mentioned earlier, makes smaller groups more effective when done online. So, more groups each with fewer people rather than fewer groups with a greater number of people is often the order of the day.

  1. Distractions

When sitting round a table in a conference room discussing topics face to face with participants, you generally have the full attention of everyone. The move to digital, with participants engaging from their own home, changes this! It’s so much easier for participants to pick their phone up and get distracted by a text when they’re sitting in front of a computer screen, or for them to get interrupted mid flow by their partner coming in to ask them what’s for dinner and give them a cuppa during the group! All of those have happened numerous times in the last six months. For the researcher, it’s important to remain patient and flexible at these times!

  1. “You’re on mute Sharon!”

“You’re on mute” is probably the most often repeated phrase in the world of locked down working life!  Even during my many family Zoom quiz nights during lockdown, I had to constantly tell people to mute and unmute to avoid giving answers at the wrong times!

In the world of online focus groups, conversation flow is challenging, especially for those less used to the technology. It is really important to spend time before the group starts to ensure all participants are familiar with facilities like muting, raising hands and, if necessary, voting. These may seem like small things, but they can really help the quality and enjoyability of the discussion!

Mhairi McFarlane

12 October 2020

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