The ability to quickly build rapport with focus group participants and then maintain it throughout the discussion session is a necessary skill of all moderators. 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
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 Read Full Text
Focus group discussions can be an effective method for learning about a range of attitudes and behavior associated with a particular topic. An important strength of this method is the diversity of perspectives to be gained as well as the associated verbal and nonverbal dynamic that ensues among group participants. It is this group interaction that defines the focus group discussion and makes it a valuable qualitative research method. Two earlier articles in Research Design Review – one from 2018 and another from 2013 – discuss group interaction and encourage researchers to hone their skills in fostering participant interaction as well as sharpen their analytical sensibilities of “interactive effects” and the implications of these effects in the interpretations and reporting of the outcomes.
This emphasis on group interaction may leave researchers wondering what, if any, role individual thinking plays in the focus group method. Yet each participant’s thinking about a topic or issue is critical to understanding focus group data. It is, after all, the reason researchers carefully screen and recruit group participants, i.e., to hear about experiences and attitudes that will vary from individual to individual.
This is also why moderators are trained on, not only how to engage participants in an interactive discussion but also, how to “draw out” and hear from each participant, especially the less social or more timid individual. At the end of the day, the moderator’s job is to come away with useful insights pertaining to the research questions that stem from the group interaction in conjunction with the moderator’s knowledge of the individual thinking gained from each person in the discussion.
There are two important moments in a focus group (either in-person or online) when the moderator can (and should) capture individual thinking. One of these moments is at the very start of the discussion and the other is at the end of the discussion. In both instances, the moderator asks participants to privately write (or type) their responses to a few questions specific to the subject matter without the influence from other participants’ discussion or comments. It is in this manner that the moderator comes to understand the individual thinking among the participants related to the topic which can then be effectively incorporated into the moderator’s conduct of the discussion while also adding important new information that might otherwise go undetected.