Focus groups

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Focus Groups:

The focus group stage is often fraught with some of the biggest problems. Generally, it is difficult to get people to attend, and if you do, the idea of incentives can often create problems. With regard to incentives, it is important that they are presented as a “thank you” for participating, and not perceived as some sort of payment. More problematic is the make-up of the group; you don’t want to have a group made up of individuals who are too similar or too different. Liz Spencer, lecturer for the Social Research Association at the University of Essex, talks about the fact that the best kind of results generally come from a heterogeneous collective of people who are largely unaware of the subject matter but who are interested in learning more – in our case, three groups:

  • Guyda Armstrong's 3rd year undergraduates from the pilot course for "The Book and Its Body"
  • Guyda Armstrong's 1st year undergraduates from "Contemporary Italian Culture"
  • Roberta Mazsa's 3rd year undergraduates from "Advanced Greek 3"
  • Roberta Mazza's 1st year undergraduates from "The Body and Society: Christianity and the West"
  • In addition, two less formal focus groups were organised and run

The conceptual framework of a focus group, then, is one which helps the Team see and reflect on the design of the project’s platforms, technologies, content, and delivery, as opposed to getting an exit interview or simple feedback form we have all had to fill out after a workshop, e.g., “on a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend this course to others?”. That kind of information is valuable, to a degree, but it hardly tells you why somebody thought the course or the app was valuable.

In addition, it is also key to understand that focus groups do not create quantitative data; they are not scientific studies, whose results we can point to and say, with confidence that, “95% of the users believe that brushing with Colgate improves their social standing at the office.” Yes, they are participative in a branch of sociology, but focus groups again do not necessarily create that level of precise data. Their inherent value lies in that they can potentially give us an idea of why 95% of the group felt or thought that way about a relatively ordinary toothpaste.


  • Considerations:
    • Select members which are heterogeneous
    • Consider how many group sessions are required or feasible and the size of the group
    • Develop a session guide or plan
    • If students, ensure that you get them early enough in the module, otherwise they are likely to give skewed answers, influenced by the lecturer or library staff, rather than based on their own perceptions
    • Consider recording and transcribing the session


  • Risks to consider:
    • The group was too homogeneous, so answers don’t tell you much
    • The group lacked any cohesion – no bonding, no sharing
    • The environment was not conducive to the session, i.e., too warm, too cold, room was too small
    • The incentives offered didn’t work to produce anything meaningful
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