First Consider In-person Focus Group Discussions

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, p. 115).

The online asynchronous mode of focus group discussions has been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, Focus group discussionincluding “Credibility & the Online Asynchronous Focus Group Method” and “The Asynchronous Focus Group Method: Participant Participation & Transparency.” Although this approach to focus groups is important, e.g., in gaining cooperation from certain segments of the population and for particular research topics, there are many reasons to first consider in-person focus group discussions.

Group interviewing in the in-person mode has the advantage of being a natural form of communication. Even in the social media, online world we live in today, the scenario of people sitting together and sharing their opinions and experiences is generally considered a socially acceptable form in the everyday lives of humans. And it is this natural way of communicating that ignites the dynamic, interactive environment that is, in many ways, the raison d’être of the focus group method. As the primary strength of the group discussion method, participant interaction is maximized in the in-person, face-to-face mode where the back-and-forth conversation can be spontaneous and easygoing. For example, Nicholas et al. (2010) found, in their study with children suffering from a chronic health problem (e.g., cerebral palsy), that “most preferred to express themselves verbally” (p. 115) in the face-to-face (vs. online) format because it allowed them to (a) give input immediately without waiting for typed responses, (b) gain feedback from the other participants straightaway, (c) show the emotional intensity of their feelings (i.e., display visual cues), and (d) potentially develop relationships with their peers beyond the confines of the specific focus group in which they participated.

This last point (i.e., potentially developing relationships) is particularly relevant to group discussions conducted with a wide variety of target populations. In the author’s experience, it is common for men who have recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, for example, to exchange tips on hiking gear or share photographs at the conclusion of a group discussion; or for special education teachers to swap contact information so they can continue to share teaching methods; or for business executives to stay after a focus group to chat and learn more about each other’s work.

In-person, face-to-face group discussions also offer the moderator, as well as participants and the observers, the advantage of seeing the nonverbal signals—for example, a nod of the head, loss of eye contact, a blush, smile, frown, grimace—that people consciously or unconsciously exhibit in the course of discussion.

Furthermore, the in-person focus group mode significantly broadens the scope of the discussion interview, as well as the cache of interviewing techniques at the moderator’s disposal, compared to either the telephone or online group discussion approach. The facilities where in-person focus groups are conducted are typically well equipped with (a) wall railings to display visual stimuli; (b) built-in audiovisual equipment for presenting videos, websites, and other material to participants; (c) easel pads to note participants’ comments or illustrate a concept; and (d) an abundance of writing pads, pens/pencils, and other supplies for use by the moderator for participant activities during the discussion. These facilities are also in service to provide refreshments to the participants, contributing to the relaxed social nature of the discussion; as well as immediate payment to participants of their earned incentive for participating in the discussion.

These advantages offer the qualitative researcher plenty of reasons to think first of the in-person mode when considering the focus group method.


Nicholas, D. B., Lach, L., King, G., Scott, M., Boydell, K., Sawatzky, B., … Young, N. L. (2010). Contrasting Internet and face-to-face focus groups for children with chronic health conditions : Outcomes and participant experiences. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 9(1), 105–122.

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