focus group discussions

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

Qualitative Design & Methods: 14 Selected Articles from 2019

Research Design Review is a blog first published in November 2009. RDR currently consists of more than 220 articles and has 650+ subscribers along Qualitative Research: Design & Methodswith nearly 780,000 views. As in recent years, many of the articles published in 2019 centered on qualitative research. This paper — “Qualitative Research: Design & Methods” — represents a compilation of 14 of these articles pertaining to qualitative research design (4 articles) and various methods (10 articles).

The articles on qualitative research design touch on basic yet important considerations when choosing a qualitative approach; specifically, the critical thinking skills required of the researcher to integrate quality principles in the research design, effectively derive meaning from the human experience, and understand the important role of reflexivity. The 10 articles on research methods covers focus group discussions (e.g., building rapport, the asynchronous mode), in-depth interviews (e.g., strengths and limitations, mitigating interviewer bias), case-centered and narrative research (e.g., a case study exploring communication with educators among working-class Latino parents in urban Los Angeles), and an ethnographic case study.