Reading (and Recording) the Room: Focus Groups

Group of people sitting in a circle chatting and laughing.

Ready to polish up your people skills? This month we are taking a step back from analysis and turning to data collection again. In previous posts we touched on different data collection methods, and in May we discussed the process of coding qualitative data. Understanding the basics of qualitative analysis opens up a world of possibilities for evaluation, and it definitely helps to know what you are taking on before beginning qualitative research since coding is an extensive process. With this background on coding qualitative data hopefully you feel more equipped to begin collecting it. Today we will focus our attention on a qualitative data collection method that we have mentioned several times but have yet to delve into—focus groups!


Focus groups consist of several selected participants that partake in an intentional conversation directed by a moderator in order to gather community input. They are used to answer open-ended questions and gain a deeper understanding from diverse viewpoints. In this post we will outline what a successful focus group looks like as well as acknowledge their limitations.

If you have not participated in or led a focus group before, here’s a general rundown of how they start. Once everyone is brought together in the same space (everyone includes a moderator, usually an assistant moderator or note taker, and the participants), the moderator facilitates introductions. Icebreakers and friendly chatter can help the participants feel more relaxed, which will lead to a more productive session. Ground rules that foster a respectful, safe environment should be clearly established by the moderator, and consent to participate is received from all participants. As the moderator, you want to be mindful of time during the introductions. Remember, the participants are spending their valuable time to be there, and you want to make sure the resources you spent to bring them together yield valuable insights. 

Moving Past the Small Talk

Jumping into your predetermined questions will begin the true discussion. Throughout the allotted time, moderators have the incredibly important job of fostering a safe environment for participants to speak candidly. The quality of data you collect hinges on the ability of the moderator to maintain control of the conversation while ensuring participants are at ease. A level of trust needs to be established to ensure that the participants are comfortable speaking their mind, which is essential to gather reliable data. Moderators can foster this environment through these ten actions:

  • Giving verbal and nonverbal listening cues
  • Asking follow up questions
  • Asking for clarification before assuming what someone means
  • Being flexible if important, unanticipated points arise 
  • Steering the conversation back on topic if it goes astray
  • Emanating confidence
  • Staying neutral 
  • Always being respectful of differing opinions
  • Ensuring everyone has an equal chance to share
  • Avoiding leading questions

If you find yourself moderating a focus group, remember that you are ultimately the leader of the group, which gives you the power to politely direct the conversation. This is particularly important if one participant is dominating the conversation and others are being left out. 

All in all, leading a focus group requires impeccable social and leadership skills. 

Active Listening 

Conducting a focus group can reveal surprising information and perspectives that may be crucial to your research but you would not have thought to include in an interview or survey on your own. Selecting a diverse group of participants can reveal aspects of your study you never knew you were missing. While conducting a single focus group still ranks low on the Community-based participatory research (CBPR) continuum, it can be one tool out of many to begin incorporating more CBPR practices into your library. 

Because you may learn something significant that steers your research, it is best to conduct a focus group early on, so it is easier to incorporate your findings into your research moving forward. The focus group questions should all directly relate to your purpose, but the unique and most advantageous aspect of a focus group is the social dynamic and dialogue that prompts complex idea sharing. 


Before you get too excited by all the thought provoking feedback that focus groups can produce, make sure you are also aware of some of their pitfalls as well. For starters, focus groups are often too small to be a statistically significant sample size for the population. If you are hoping to generalize your data to a large population or to make transformative planning decisions, a focus group should not be your only data source, but it can be a powerful source of data when combined with other methods. 

Although a single focus group may take less time and money to conduct than five separate interviews, focus groups also take a lot of planning to be well executed and should not be used as a rushed way to collect data. Similarly, focus groups require a skilled moderator in order to collect reliable data, and not having the right person available could cause your focus group to be less effective.

Possibly the most important thing to consider is that focus groups cannot guarantee anonymity due to the number of participants listening to each other. Sensitive topics that participants may not want to discuss in front of others are not well suited for focus groups since people are likely to hold back and not share their true internal reactions. In any focus group, regardless of topic, the moderator’s and participants’ expressed reactions can significantly influence what is subsequently shared. Therefore, focus groups can be susceptible to producing a consensus that may in fact be misleading, otherwise known as groupthink. This is another reason focus groups are often used in conjunction with other data collection methods. 


Clearly, focus groups have their strengths and weaknesses, but if well conducted they can bring invaluable, diverse perspectives to your research. Don’t forget to record the session so you have a complete transcript available to code! To wrap up, here are five key points to remember about focus groups. 

  1. It is essential to have a skilled moderator who will build a safe sharing space. 
  2. Remember to gain consent from each participant and lay ground rules to ensure everyone’s contributions are respected.
  3. Focus groups are generally not made up of a statistically significant sample size and therefore data from a single focus group should not be generalized to a large population. 
  4. Make sure participants are aware that confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. 
  5. Conduct focus groups early on in your study so that the unique insights they bring can inform your work moving forward. 

Thanks for reading! Next, we will cover some important logistical points such as how to select participants and ask the right questions. If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear from you. You can contact us at

LRS’s Between a Graph and a Hard Place blog series provides instruction on how to evaluate in a library context. To receive posts via email, please complete this form.