How to conduct a focus group

This is the second in a three-part series on designing, conducting, and analyzing results from focus groups. 

You’ve successfully designed your focus group and the official focus group meeting day has arrived. How exciting! Today’s the day you’ll be gathering valuable insight that you probably can’t get anywhere else (no pressure, right?!).

Not to put a damper on your excitement, but there’s still a chance your focus group can flop, even if your planning was perfect. You may not have ever given it much thought, but there’s a lot that goes into conducting a successful focus group – much more than just asking a few questions.

Here are six ways you can ensure your focus group day is a success:


Setting up for a focus group doesn’t require much, but you still want to prepare. Always arrive early to set up the meeting space – extra early if you’re using a space outside of your organization. Be sure to pack extra batteries and pens, your audio recorder, notepads, plenty of surveys or forms your participants will complete, name tags and toys (if using), business cards for the facilitator and co-facilitator, and any water, candy, or food you’ll be providing.


During your focus group, you’ll be asking people to share their opinions, values, or knowledge on a topic. This can be intimidating, especially if you’re in a small group with complete strangers. Put everyone at ease by creating a welcoming environment – this is the best way to guarantee you’ll get usable input from your participants.

Here are some ways to ensure everyone feels welcome and comfortable sharing:

  • Consider providing small toys such as Play-Doh or pipe cleaners so that participants can keep their hands busy. Believe it or not, this will help some folks open up more!
  • Offer water and mints or hard candies. If you’re offering food, choose food options that are easy to eat and don’t get stuck in your teeth.
  • Consider using name tags (first name only) so that participants know how to address one another. It’s always awkward to try to refer to someone you don’t know. This will also help the co-facilitator take notes if it’s important to keep track of each participant’s comments.
  • Welcome participants when they arrive and let them begin working on any demographic forms, consent forms, or surveys.
  • Create a warm, inviting space by avoiding fluorescent lights (if possible), providing comfortable chairs, and keeping the room temperature reasonable.
  • Have everything set up well in advance of the start time. If you’re scurrying around setting things up when folks arrive, they may feed off your stress.
  • Make sure you’ve provided clear directions to the focus group location in advance. If possible, put up signs near the road and outside and inside the building so participants know exactly where to go. You don’t want them to get irritated before they even arrive!


Starting with a great introduction and overview further puts participants at ease and sets you up for smoother focus group facilitation.

Here are some items to discuss during your introduction:

  • Introduction of the facilitator and co-facilitator and what each of you will be doing during the focus group discussion.
  • Introduction of the participants, if appropriate. If you’re discussing sensitive information, it’s probably best to skip elaborate introductions.
  • An overview of the process, including what will happen during the focus group, what time the session will end, and when the participants will receive their incentives (if any). This may also be a good time to let everyone know where the restrooms are.
  • Remind participants of the topic they’ll be discussing, why you’re collecting this information, how the results will be used, and that their responses are confidential.
  • Establish group guidelines. Some basic guidelines for focus groups include: all participants are encouraged to share, respect for others’ opinions, cell phone courtesy, and not sharing others’ comments outside of the focus group.
  • Inform the participants that the session will be recorded. Point out that this is only to help the facilitators remember everything that was said and individual responses will remain anonymous.


Finally! It’s time to do what you set out to do!

Before you jump into the important questions, you may want to ask the group an icebreaker question. This question could be about anything – their dream vacation spot, what superpower they would like to have, etc. Just make sure you let them know that the first question is just a warm-up.

Once you start asking the real questions, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • The facilitators should be completely objective. They are only there to manage the process, ask the questions, and take notes – NOT to share their personal experiences or opinions. A facilitator who shares their own opinions may discourage those with differing opinions from sharing.
  • Although the facilitator will do much of the group management work, the co-facilitator can also help with keeping the group on topic, redirecting participants, clarifying comments (especially inconsistent/conflicting comments), and sticking to the schedule. This work is essential to ensuring you collect the intended information from a focus group.
  • If you’re unsure you understood someone’s comment, simply ask for clarification (e.g., What I heard was…is that was you meant? Can you expand on your last comment?)
  • Be prepared to deal with challenging participants.
    • If someone is dominating the conversation, ask: “What do others think?” “Let’s hear some other thoughts.”
    • If someone hasn’t spoken, ask them directly if they have any thoughts, smile at them, and make them feel comfortable in sharing.
    • If someone is rambling, don’t look at them, move your body away from them (facing other participants), jump in when they pause, or look at your watch or the clock in the room while they’re talking.


The co-facilitator will be responsible for taking notes. These notes can be taken with pen and paper (preferred) or on a laptop. If you’re using a laptop, make sure (in advance!) that the typing noise isn’t distracting.

Since most sessions are recorded, there’s no need to take verbatim notes. Here are some items that should be captured in the notes:

  • Important points
  • Poignant quotes
  • Any important non-verbal communication (such as crossed arms or rolling eyes) that arises during the discussion. These non-verbal cues often provide important insight that can’t be determined just from listening to the audio recording.

Experienced co-facilitators may also be able to manage a running list of themes, or categories, that emerge during the discussion. Alternately, you may choose to create a list of themes and categories you expect to emerge before the focus group, which may help the co-facilitator organize their notes. Although managing themes during notetaking is a nice addition and can save you time during the analysis phase, it’s definitely not required for a successful focus group.


Closing the group is just as important as the introduction. This process allows one last chance to share and clarifies the next steps.

Here are some items to include in your closing:

  • Allow time for participants to share any additional comments about the topic.
  • Remind participants about their incentives (if any), how they’ll receive them (ideally, participants should receive their incentive right before leaving), and any forms they must sign to receive the incentive.
  • Remind the participants how the results will be used and point out how valuable their insight has been. If you’ll be able to share the results, let participants know how they can access any final reports or attend information sessions.
  • Super important step: Thank the participants for their time and for sharing their thoughts.

Okay, now you’re two-thirds of the way done with your focus group process. Congratulations!

Do you have other tips for conducting great focus groups?
Share them below!

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Grant Readiness

December 16, 2018

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