focus group discussions

The Asynchronous Focus Group Method: Participant Participation & Transparency

There is a great deal that is written about transparency in research. It is generally acknowledged that researchers owe it to their research sponsors as well as to the broader research community to divulge the details of their designs and the implementation of their studies. Articles pertaining to transparency Participant participation in asynchronous focus group discussionshave been posted throughout Research Design Review.

The need for transparency in qualitative research is as relevant for designs utilizing off-line modes, such as in-person interviews and focus group discussions, as it is for online research, such as asynchronous focus groups. A transparency detail that is critical for the users of online asynchronous – not-in-real-time – focus group discussions research is the level of participant participation. This may, in fact, be the most important information concerning an asynchronous study that a researcher can provide.

Participation level in asynchronous discussions is particularly important because participation in the online asynchronous mode can be erratic and weak. Nicholas et al. (2010) found that “online focus group participants offered substantially less information than did those in the [in-person] groups” (p. 114) and others have underscored a serious limitation of this mode; that is, “it is very difficult to get subjects with little interest in [the topic] to participate and the moderator has more limited options for energising and motivating the participants” (Murgado-Armenteros et al., 2012, p. 79) and, indeed, researchers have found that “participation in the online focus group dropped steadily” during the discussion period (Deggs et al., 2010, p. 1032).

The integrity and ultimate usefulness of focus group data hinge solidly on the level of participation and engagement among group participants. This is true regardless of mode but it is a particularly critical consideration when conducting asynchronous discussions. Because of this and because transparency is vital to the health of the qualitative research community, focus group researchers employing the online asynchronous method are encouraged to continually monitor, record, and report on the rate and level of participation, e.g., how many and who (in terms of relevant characteristics) of the recruited sample entered into the discussion, how many and who responded to all questions, how thoughtful and in-depth (or not) were responses, how many and who engaged with the moderator, and how many and who engaged with other participants.

This transparent account of participant participation offers the users of asynchronous focus group research an essential ingredient as they assess the value of the study conducted.

Deggs, D., Grover, K., & Kacirek, K. (2010). Using message boards to conduct online focus groups. Retrieved from http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR15-4/deggs.pdf

Murgado-Armenteros, E. M., Torres-Ruiz, F. J., & Vega-Zamora, M. (2012). Differences between online and face-to-face focus groups, viewed through two approaches. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research, 7(2), 73–86.

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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Individual Thinking in the Focus Group Method

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 Individualism in focus groupsamong 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 Reviewone 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.

 

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“Did I Do Okay?”: The Case for the Participant Reflexive Journal

It is not unusual for an in-depth interview (IDI) or focus group participant to wonder at some point in an interview or discussion if the participant “did okay”; that is, whether the participant responded to the researcher’s questions in the Reflexivitymanner in which the researcher intended. For instance, an interviewer investigating parents’ healthy food purchases for their children might ask a mother to describe a typical shopping trip to the grocery store. In response, the mother might talk about the day of the week, the time of day, where she shops, and whether she is alone or with her children or someone else. After which she might ask the interviewer, Is that the kind of thing you were looking for? Is that what you mean? Did I do okay in answering your question? The interviewer’s follow up might be, Tell me something about the in-store experience such as the sections of the store you visit and the kinds of food items you typically buy.

It is one thing to misinterpret the intention of a researcher’s question – e.g., detailing the logistics of food purchasing rather than the actual food purchase experience – but another thing to adjust responses based on any number of factors influenced by the researcher-participant interaction. These interaction effects stem, in part, from the participant’s attempt to “do okay” in their role in the research process. Dr. Kathryn Roulston at the University of Georgia has written quite a bit about interaction in research interviews, including a just published edited volume Interactional Studies of Qualitative Research Interviews.

The dynamics that come into play in an IDI or focus group study – and in varying degrees, ethnographic research – are of great interest to qualitative researchers and important considerations in the overall quality of the research. This is the reason that a lot has been written about the researcher’s reflexive journal and its importance in Read Full Text