Planting Seeds for Success-FULL Focus Groups

Circular arrangement of people's hands each holding a seedling.

Did last month’s post inspire you to incorporate a focus group into your project? Are you too busy at this moment? We understand! However, you never know when conducting a focus group may just turn into the best possible way to collect community input before moving forward with a big project, and we want to make sure that when that time comes you are fully prepared to host a focus group full of meaningful discussions from participants. So let’s dig in!

Laying the Groundwork

Our last post shared some ideas on how to create a safe space for a focus group, but there are three other pieces a focus group needs to run properly: purpose, participants, and questions. 

Planning With Purpose

We broadly discussed the purpose of focus groups previously, but today is all about getting our hands dirty. So let’s say you are faced with the decision of whether or not to conduct a focus group right now. What are some reasons you may choose to go through with the focus group? 

One of the most common reasons for conducting focus groups is when new services or programs are being implemented. Listening to people discuss their viewpoints and thoughts on these new developments can prevent unforeseen pitfalls in your planning before it is too late. Additionally, focus groups serve an important purpose when the information you are trying to gather cannot easily be answered on a written survey, possibly because the answer is abstract or lengthy. You may also want to conduct a focus group before creating a survey, in order to learn more about your survey audience and ensure you ask the right questions. Lastly, you should only proceed with a focus group if you have the time and resources to find willing participants! 

Selecting Participants 

You wouldn’t necessarily plant roses if your end goal is to grow a vegetable garden, so try to be just as intentional when picking participants for your focus group. Gathering your participants is possibly one of the most challenging aspects of designing a successful focus group, but having a clear purpose will direct you to the right participants. Select people who have a stake in what you’re researching or valuable knowledge you cannot easily access yourself. For example, if conducting a focus group before implementing a new early learning program at your library, a random selection of participants may give you participants who are not parents and do not intend to utilize this program. Recruiting participants who have young children for this study will give you more relevant information. 

Once you identify the group you would like to invite to participate, finding and contacting them is your next challenge. The more people you talk to the larger your candidate list will be and the more likely it is that you will have a full focus group. Libraries should consider utilizing the resources and partnerships they already have to find their preferred participants. Offering incentives is customary to thank your participants for their time. Funding for incentives can also be a challenge for libraries and a reason focus groups for libraries may be kept small. 

One way to build a candidate list is to create an interest form for patrons to fill out that gauges their willingness to participate and also checks whether they are part of your target group. Asking for volunteers for your focus groups can be problematic because those that will volunteer are likely more engaged with library activities and you may be hoping to hear from a group that is generally less engaged. Ask the people you seek out to participate by being open about the incentive offered and explaining the value they can bring to the discussion. 

Companions and Competitors 

Another piece to this puzzle is the participants’ group dynamics. The participants’ age, educational background, and socio-economic status, among many other factors, can have a large impact on who shares what during the focus group. Selecting participants that share common ground will increase the likelihood that conversation and ideas will flow naturally. After some common ground is established, diverse perspectives can also improve the conversation and limit groupthink. If you have multiple diverging groups that you want input from, conducting more than one focus group may be a good option to ensure that participants are comfortable speaking their mind within the group. Always plan for cancellations and no shows, and try to have at least three people participate in each focus group. Groups larger than eight may be challenging to direct.  

Cultivating Your Questions

Not only do you want a focus group full of participants but you also want the discussions to be full of relevant information. Always keep in mind the purpose of your project and the participants you are working with when creating the questions for your focus group. Each question should be directly tied to the information you are seeking. 

Participants will also be more comfortable if the questions are clearly worded without potentially confusing jargon. Don’t ask questions that make participants feel guilty or embarrassed and keep questions short. Multiple parts to one question may be overlooked or worse, lead to confusion and misunderstanding. 

Focus groups are your chance to ask open ended questions that spark lengthy responses and discussion. Questions should not be leading the participants towards a specific answer. Keep an open mind and don’t try to predict how participants will answer your questions. If your first focus group has a couple questions people seem reluctant to answer, put yourself in the participants’ shoes, learn from your mistakes and rework your questions for next time. 

Harvest Time!

We hope you can keep this food for thought safe until the time comes for you to begin your own focus group. Remember to create a safe space, understand what you are hoping to gain from your focus group and always keep that purpose in mind when selecting your participants and questions. Here are a few more takeaways from this post.

  1. Hold a focus group to find information that cannot easily be answered by a survey question or when you need to learn more from the community before moving forward with your plans.
  2. Don’t underestimate the work needed to find and recruit participants.
  3. Be conscious of the group you are putting together and how power structures may influence what people are willing to share within this group.
  4. Make sure that each of your questions has a purpose, but be willing to adjust your questions as you learn more about your participants.
  5. Keep questions simple and clear. Don’t ask manipulative questions. 

If you’re now daydreaming about starting a garden instead, check out Boulder Public Library’s Seed to Table program or Mesa County Libraries’ Discovery Garden.

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.