focus groups

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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The Focus Group Method

In 2018, five articles were published pertaining to the focus group method. Two of these articles discuss the key differentiating attribute of focus groups, i.e., participant interaction and engagement, and the important role this attribute plays in the integrity of the research.

The interactive component of the focus group method also raises questions concerning mode, which is the subject of two other articles in this compilation. Specifically, these articles address the strengths and limitations of the in-person and online asynchronous focus group modes.

The fifth article in this paper discusses the concept of saturation in the context of determining the “right” number of focus groups to conduct for a particular study. Saturation has been discussed before in RDR, with the emphasis being on the idea that saturation alone is an inadequate measure by which to derive the number of events and, in fact, as a sole measure, saturation jeopardizes data quality, see “Designing a Quality In-depth Interview Study: How Many Interviews Are Enough?”

The focus group method has been discussed in RDR over the years, such as this article on mode differences, and this article (actually, slide show) on applying the Total Quality Framework to focus groups, and a discussion on the use of projective techniques, as well as an article on the many considerations in the design and implementation of the focus group method.