Focus Groups

Focus Groups: Moving to the Online Face-to-face Mode

There are many articles in Research Design Review about the focus group method. They range from broad discussions concerning the strengths and limitations of focus group discussions in qualitative research, to determining the number of groups to conduct for a particular study, to considerations Online synschronous focus groupwhen deciding on the heterogeneity or homogeneity of focus group participants, to matters of moderating such as the importance of gaining individual thinking in the group environment.

Most of these articles pertain to the in-person mode, where the moderator meets group participants at a local facility to discuss the research topic for 90 minutes to two hours. Alternatively, there are a variety of online solutions for the focus group method. One of the most popular are online asynchronous discussions (sometimes called “bulletin boards”) that take place over two to three or more days. As discussed in a brief 2018 article, there are a number of strengths and limitations to the online asynchronous mode, including the advantages of flexibility, geographic spread of participants, and potential for multi-media input; as well as limitations such as that having to do with the absence of visual cues, managing participant engagement, and conducting the analysis.

As I write this in mid-March 2020, many researchers are scrambling to find ways to re-design their in-person focus group research during the current coronavirus pandemic crisis. In doing so, these researchers are taking a close look at moving from in-person discussions to an online mode that allows for some semblance of in-person groups by way of face-to-face, real-time interaction, i.e., synchronous video conferencing. For some (if not, most) of these researchers, the online face-to-face mode is a new experience and, as such, researchers are uncertain on how to proceed on two key facets of the research design: 1) the online service or platform they should use and 2) best practices when conducting online synchronous group discussions for research purposes.

With respect to the online service or platform, the researcher needs to weigh the scope of the study (e.g., type of participant) as well as the depth and breadth of the discussion guide. While simple interfaces such as those provided by Zoom, Webex, or GoToMeeting may offer the video interface, the researcher needs to think about what they may or may not be giving up in terms of the quality of the discussion. For instance, dedicated online qualitative research platforms – such as itracks, 20/20 Research, Civicom,, and others – offer features and capabilities designed specifically for the demands of qualitative research. This includes the capacity to go beyond simple video conferencing (e.g., recording, screen sharing, and transcripts) by way of: recruiting participants; providing a community dashboard; aiding in question development; enabling in-discussion participant activity capabilities such as marking up images and creating collages; an observer “back room”; and various analytical functions such as image tagging as well as keyword and sentiment analysis.

In terms of best practices when conducting online synchronous discussions, here are a couple of resources:

“Considerations for and Lessons Learned from Online, Synchronous Focus Groups” (Forrestal, D’Angelo, and Vogel, 2015)

“Best Practices for Synchronous Online Focus Groups” (Lobe, 2017)

Online Moderator Training with Casey Sweet and Jeff Walkowski

Although there are clearly limitations to the online mode in qualitative research (as mentioned earlier), there are also times and extraordinary situations (such as the current pandemic) when it is the best approach. In these times, it is incumbent on the researcher to think carefully about maintaining the integrity of their research as they move to an online face-to-face mode, to reflect on what was lost and gained in this approach, and to be transparent in the reporting of this research.


Forrestal, S. G., D’Angelo, A. V., & Vogel, L. K. (2015). Considerations for and lessons learned from online, synchronous focus groups. Survey Practice, 8(2), 1-8.

Lobe, B. (2017). Best Practices for Synchronous Online Focus Groups. In A New Era in Focus Group Research (pp. 227-250). Palgrave Macmillan, London.



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Focus Groups: Heterogeneity vs. Homogeneity

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 107-109).



Fundamental to the design of a focus group study is group composition. Specifically, the researcher must determine the degree of homogeneity or heterogeneity that should be represented by the group participants. As shown below, there are many questions the researcher needs to contemplate, such as the extent of similarity or dissimilarity in participants’ demographic characteristics, as well as in their experiences and involvement with the subject matter.

Questions When Considering Heterogeneity vs. Homogeneity
A few of the questions the focus group researcher might consider when determining the desired heterogeneity or homogeneity among group participants include:

  • Should participants be in the same age range and/or stage of life?
  • Should participants be the same gender, race, and/or ethnicity?
  • Should participants be at a similar income, socio-economic, or educational level?
  • Should participants reside in the same community, be members of the same organization(s)?
  • Should participants have similar professions or jobs (including, job titles)?
  • Should participants have a similar involvement, experience, or knowledge with the research topic, e.g., the same types of problems with their 13 year old boys? the same healthcare service provider? the same purchase behavior? the same level of expertise with a new technology?

Whether or not—or the degree to which—group participants should be homogeneous in some or all characteristics has been at the center of debate for some years. On the one hand, Grønkjær, Curtis, Crespigny, and Delmar (2011) claim that at least some “homogeneity in focus group construction is considered essential for group interaction and dynamics” (p. 23)—for example, participants belonging to the same age group may have similar frames of reference and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with people who have lived through the same experience. In the same vein, Read Full Text

Building Rapport & Engagement in the Focus Group Method

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 150-152).

The ability to quickly build rapport with focus group participants and then maintain it throughout the discussion session is a necessary skill of all Rapport building in focus groupsmoderators. Regardless of mode (in-person, telephone, or online), focus group moderators must learn how to effectively engage participants to generate accurate and complete information. Rapport building for the moderator begins even before the start of a group discussion, when he/she welcomes the participants as they arrive at the facility (for an in-person discussion), on the teleconference line (for a telephone focus group), or in the virtual focus group room (for an online discussion), and it continues beyond the introductory remarks during which the moderator acknowledges aspects of the discussion environment that may not be readily apparent (e.g., the presence of observers, the microphone or other device being used to audio record the discussion), states a few ground rules for the session, and allows participants to ask any questions or make comments before the start of the discussion. In the in-person mode, the moderator’s rapport building goes beyond what he/she says to participants to make them feel at ease to also include the physical environment. For example, business executives might feel comfortable and willing to talk sitting around a standard conference table; however, in order to build rapport and stimulate engagement among a group of teenagers, the moderator needs to select a site where teens will feel that they can relax and freely discuss the issues. This might be a standard focus group facility with a living or recreation room setup (i.e., a room with couches, bean bags, and rugs on the floor for sitting) or an unconventional location such as someone’s home or the city park.

Another aspect of the physical environment in in-person discussions that impacts rapport and consequently the quality of the data gathered is the seating arrangement. For instance, Krueger and Casey (2009) recommend that the moderator position a shy participant Read Full Text