The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 143-147).
The importance of consistency (or, the danger of inconsistency) in qualitative data collection has been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review (see “The Recipe for Quality Outcomes in Qualitative Research Includes a Healthy Dose of Consistency” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects”). From the perspective of the Total Quality Framework, moderator inconsistency can be a real concern in the focus group method because of the extreme multitasking required of the moderator. More so than in the in-depth interview method, the focus group moderator has to manage multiple points of view and ensure the full engagement of all group participants within a well-defined slot of time (typically, 75–120 minutes depending on the mode). Because of these challenges and the inherent unpredictability of the group dynamic process, the moderator may find it difficult (if not impossible) to cover all areas of the discussion guide across different focus groups and/or practice consistent behavior in the articulation of research questions in each group. This inconsistency across groups does not necessarily lead to inaccuracy in the research data (i.e., biased outcomes) but may result in variations in the data that do not actually exist.
For example, a series of focus group discussions among people who are active in environmental causes might include some groups that were easily managed by the moderator, who was able to cover the entirety of the discussion guide, thereby providing a well rounded and informative perspective of the issues. Other groups within the series, however, might have been especially contentious, dominated by a few highly vocal environmental activists who were disruptive to the point that the moderator had difficulty maintaining control of these groups and was ultimately forced to skip some of the important areas of the discussion guide. As a result of this inconsistency in group dynamics and management, the final outcome of the research might accurately reflect participants’ positions on the research topics of interest, but the final data may also indicate a wide variation of personal opinion on the issues when, in reality, this variation does not exist. (This example speaks further to the importance of managing participants when moderating group discussions while, at the same time, giving participants sufficient latitude to speak their minds.)
The researcher moderating a focus group must also know when and how to follow up on participants’ comments and to probe responses that may be unclear or inconsistent with remarks made earlier in the discussion. To this end, the moderator has the responsibility of keeping track of the group dynamics and identifying if and how individual attitudes may have shifted as the result of the group interaction (e.g., exploring why mothers, who stated early in the discussion that they buy fast food for their children because it is easy and convenient, talk about purchasing healthy food for their children after hearing other group participants espouse the virtue in giving children a nutritional diet).
All of this is to say that the focus group moderator must be skilled in the art of multitasking, including
- Managing discussion time and topical priorities in a dynamic environment to ensure that there is consistent coverage of the key areas within the discussion guide across groups.
- Maintaining focus during each discussion, asking follow-up questions and pursuing emerging and/or contrary ideas, even though the moderator may be overwhelmed with stress and fatigue due, in part, to the high level of social interaction.
- Responding to observers’ requests (e.g., asking the moderator at the midway point in a discussion to interject a new topic or question).
- Dealing with unanticipated events (e.g., participants who do not show up for the discussion by the appointed time, or someone in a discussion who gets very angry or upset and starts to cry).
- Managing logistics (e.g., the discussion room setup for in-person groups, the look and capabilities of the online asynchronous platform).