When the Philadelphia Water Department came to us to find out how they could roll out their new EBilling (online payment) system in the smoothest way possible, we knew that simply surveying customers wouldn’t give us enough details about the real concerns that they might have. To obtain more extensive feedback on how well a particular program or service is working, or insights into possible improvements in the future, focus groups can be extremely useful. Focus groups help researchers obtain answers that go beyond the what questions that are often answered in surveys, and really begin to delve into the why’s and how’s. So that was the approach that we decided to take to answer the Philadelphia Water Department’s questions.

Focus groups provide a comfortable medium for participants to share information. Further, they elevate the voices of those who are affected by the program or service, achieving a more equitable evaluation and a nuanced understanding of the program’s impact. 

Below are the three steps for organizing quality focus groups: making decisions around recruitment and sampling; designing a protocol; and facilitating the discussion.

 

Step #1: Making Decisions Around Recruitment and Sampling

  • Think carefully about how your sampling techniques will help you to answer your questions. You should think carefully about who to invite to focus groups, and base your decision on the purpose of your research. In the example of EBilling, we were interested to see how elderly people might respond to the new program, so we targeted that specific population rather than selecting a random sample. You might also be interested in considering only the views of people who have extensive experience with a program, rather than newcomers, perhaps if you wanted to assess change over time. In this case, selecting a group of people who have been associated with the program for a minimum of a year (or however long seems appropriate) could be a good course of action. Often it is useful to target a representative sample from across the population that receives the particular services that you are evaluating. It is usually a good idea to recruit a new pool of recruits for each focus group so that you are not hearing the same opinions every time. 
  • Be very active in your communications with invitees. A successful recruitment process requires strong communication skills. The first step is to send out invitations through phone calls, emails or text messages. It is often useful to send out an initial email and to make phone calls to people who have not responded to the email (the email might have gone straight to their ‘junk’ folder or they might no longer check their email). However, some people are very wary about answering calls from numbers that they don’t recognize, so following up with a text message that people can read quickly can be very helpful. Once you have a sufficient participant pool, you can select who you would like to invite to the focus groups based on demographics that represent the group that you are interested in more broadly. After the participant has confirmed the initial invitation, be sure to send at least two reminders leading up to to the focus group so that participants know the event is still happening. 
  • Invite more people than you would like to attend in case some don’t show up. We recommend inviting more participants than you intend to have in the focus group. That way, if other participants do not show up or if there are last-minute drop-outs, you will still have enough people in the group to have a meaningful discussion. If you are aiming to speak with eight participants, for example, it could be useful to invite around twelve. If they all attend, you can ask some participants to go home before the group (but make sure that you still give them any incentives that you promised beforehand!). It is often a good idea to provide incentives, such as cash payment for a participant’s time, or food and drink to encourage people to attend and to make them feel compensated for their contribution. 

Step #2: Designing a Protocol

  • Include an introduction to explain the research that is being conducted. The protocol for the focus group should always begin with a clear explanation by the moderator as to what research is being conducted, why the participants have been invited to share their opinions, and what will be done with the information. For the EBilling focus groups, we told participants, “The information that we learn from these focus groups will be reported back to the Water Department”, but also stated, “The information that we share with the Water Department will never include names or personal information. Please feel free to voice any questions or concerns at any time.” It is essential that the research team has the explicit consent of the participant and that they have been as transparent as possible with the process. The introduction also serves as an opportunity to remind participants that there are no right or wrong answers and to encourage those who might sometimes dominate a conversation to share their space with others, while also reminding quieter participants that you would also love to hear their views. 
  • Develop relevant questions and ask for feedback. A focus group protocol includes the list of questions that you will use to guide the conversation. When you’re developing your questions, it’s always important to think about how they link to what you are hoping to learn from the focus groups and the key outcomes of your program. While you are writing the questions, make sure that all of your participants can understand them – particularly if they come from a range of educational backgrounds. It is usually a good idea to send the protocol draft to other team members for review so that they can provide feedback on the clarity of the questions. They can identify gaps in the protocol where some of your research questions might not have been sufficiently addressed. 
  • Include ‘warm-up’ and ‘cool-down’ questions. In addition to questions that specifically relate to your what you want to learn about the program, it is also important to design ‘warm up’ questions that make people feel comfortable. For the EBilling groups, we asked participants what their name was and where they were from. As you come towards the end of the session, it can also be useful to include ‘cool down’ questions that might focus on less contentious issues relating to your topic so that any tension that may have built during the focus group can be reduced.

 

Step #3: Facilitating the Discussion

As you begin the focus group, it is important to take a friendly tone and to make everybody feel welcome. Some of the key things to look out for as you moderate the conversation include:

  • Ensure that everybody has the opportunity to speak. A good way to do this is to go around the table in turn to ask each participant their view.  It is particularly useful to do this for the first question so that everyone has a chance to say something initially. This approach might not be necessary for every question, but it can be helpful to prompt the quieter participants to share their perspectives. Other ways to encourage people to participate could include writing ideas on sticky notes, asking people to talk about their ideas in pairs before sharing them with the group and asking them to put colored dots next to statements on posters that they agree or disagree with. 
  • Redirect the conversation. Sometimes participants will go off on tangents to share issues that have affected them or because they have thought of something that they find interesting, that is only vaguely related to the question you’ve asked. In the EBilling focus groups, participants were sometimes more interested to talk about aspects of the Philadelphia Water Department’s other services that they had views about. When you have a limited amount of time, it is important to stay on track, so be sure to politely steer the conversation back towards your protocol. Be careful not to make the participant feel like their input was irrelevant by reassuring them that their ideas are interesting, but do not linger too long on the topic. A helpful way to explain to the participants that you might cut them off is to state it at the beginning of the focus group. You could, for example, say “As the facilitator, I will be sure to keep the conversation moving so that we keep the conversation moving so that we get through all of the questions. That may mean that at times, I have to cut the conversation short on certain questions. If I have to do that, you can always share any additional ideas with me following the conversation.” 
  • Prompt participants to elaborate where necessary. Occasionally, participants can give one-word answers to questions, so you can encourage them to explain their views more by asking questions like ‘why?’ or ‘how do you mean?’ or by asking them to tell you more or give an example. 
  • Avoid bias. Everybody has internal biases, so really push yourself to treat every participant the same and to value each of their comments equally. They all have the potential to provide useful insights if given the opportunity. Avoiding demonstrating positive affirmations (such as nodding or verbally agreeing with a participant’s view) is also an important way to avoid bias and to prevent other participants who might have opposing views to feel that their opinions would not be valued. 

A successful focus group doesn’t mean the work is done. Next steps include performing a qualitative analysis through coding the data and identifying key themes. Insights into how to do this are beyond the scope of this article, but it is an important task that should not be overlooked.

Ultimately, focus groups can be a fantastic way to help nonprofit and public sector organizations to look beyond the numbers and the shorter qualitative data that they can collect in surveys. They enable nonprofit leaders to directly hear the opinions of the people who are accessing services and to enable those stakeholders to feel that the organization cares about their perspective. Importantly, this kind of data leads to organizations being able to tailor their programming more effectively to the needs of people who access services, which creates greater efficiency and cost-effective service provision for the organization.