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 when 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, Discuss.io, 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.
Images captured from: https://pixabay.com/vectors/monitor-screen-computer-electronics-1143202/ and https://www.istockphoto.com/illustrations/cartoon-people?mediatype=illustration&phrase=cartoon%20people&sort=mostpopular