How to design a focus group

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

A focus group is an interviewing technique that allows organizations to gather detailed information from small groups of participants in a short amount of time. Focus groups are typically used to gather information on participants’ opinions, beliefs, or experiences.

So, why not just administer a survey? Surveys are great tools for gathering data on what is going on but focus groups provide insight on why it’s going on. Although focus groups tend to take more time than surveys, they can provide invaluable insight on community members or issues that simply can’t be collected in a survey.

Focus groups can be extremely beneficial for health and social service organizations. Here are just some of the ways focus groups can be helpful:

  • Participant input can be used to develop or modify programs, services, mission/vision statements, or strategic plans.
  • Asking for a community’s input helps build consensus and buy-in for an organization, issue, or program.
  • Focus groups allow organizations to identify the primary causes (perceived or real) of community issues, as well as ideas for solutions.
  • Focus group results are a great primary data source that can be used in organizational reports and grant proposals.
  • Focus group data can guide the development of more effective surveys, which can be administered to a larger population.

There are three major phases of implementing a successful focus group: designing it, conducting it, and analyzing the data you collect. Here are the steps for your first phase, designing the focus group:


You’ll need questions (no more than 10) to guide your focus group discussion. The questions you ask will depend on your topic, the goals of your project, and your participants. Here are some best practices for developing your questions:

  • Make your questions open-ended to elicit more detailed responses.
  • Use language that’s appropriate for your participants’ education level.
  • Define all acronyms and ambiguous terms.
  • Don’t put too many questions in one – it makes it harder for participants to remember everything that was asked. If you need to ask follow-up questions, ask those after everyone has responded to the main question.
  • Ensure your questions aren’t leading.
  • Order your questions from general to specific but plan to lead with the most important questions in case you run out of time.
  • Determine how much time you can spend on each question. This will help you stay on track while you’re facilitating the focus groups.


You’ll need a group facilitator and, ideally, a co-facilitator to conduct each focus group. These individuals can be internal to your organization, but some groups may benefit from external facilitation. For example, if you’re conducting a focus group to assess staff job satisfaction, it makes more sense to have an external facilitator.

The facilitator’s role in the focus group is to ask the questions, clarify participants’ responses, and manage group dynamics. The co-facilitator will primarily be responsible for taking detailed notes, managing the recording system, and noting non-verbal feedback.

Here are some skills and attributes you’ll want in your facilitator and co-facilitator:

  • Objective
  • Demographically similar to participants
  • Able to create a warm, welcoming environment
  • Great listening skills
  • Skilled in interviewing techniques, verbal and non-verbal responses (facilitator)
  • Understands group management techniques (facilitator)


Your focus group participants should be representative of your target population. For example, if you’re going to use the focus group results to develop a nutrition program for pre-diabetic young adults, you’ll want all your participants to be young adults and pre-diabetic.

The first step in identifying your participants is to determine your inclusion criteria. These criteria may be based on age, gender, occupation, disease status, etc. Establishing these criteria first will ensure only qualified participants are invited.


How many participants will be in each group?
Group size is an important consideration when planning a focus group. If your group is too small, your participants may feel uncomfortable speaking and the group’s collective experience will be limited. On the other hand, a group that’s too large will be difficult to manage and often results in many participants not sharing at all.

The ideal group size for noncommercial focus groups is 5 – 8 people. If you anticipate participants will have a lot to share, you may limit your group to 5 or 6. If you think participants will have less experience with a topic, you may want to bump the group size up to 10.

You may also want to schedule more people than you need for each group to account for no-shows. The average no-show rate is 10 – 20%. Seniors and retirees have a much lower no-show rate; young people and parents with young children have a much higher rate.

Who will be in each group?
The most important factor affecting focus group success is ensuring participants feel safe enough to share their experiences and opinions. One of the best ways to do this is to create groups that are as similar as possible. Groups with age, gender, or race variability may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences due to distrust of other participants or fear of being judged.

How long will each group last?
You want your group to be long enough to justify participants coming out but also not so long that it’s a burden. While every group is different, the most commonly recommended length is 45 – 90 minutes.

When and where will the focus groups be held?
When and where you hold your focus groups is dependent on your participants.

If you’re conducting a staff focus group, it makes the most sense to hold the groups during or immediately after work. Groups with retirees may need to be held mid-morning or afternoon, and groups with working adults would be best scheduled for early evenings or weekends.

Your location should be as convenient as possible for participants. Ideal locations are centrally-located, on the bus line, and have easy parking options. The space you choose should be comfortable and inviting (no grilling fluorescent lights, if possible!). It’s also best to use a location that will allow participants to sit around a table or in a circle or semi-circle so they can see one another.

How many groups will we conduct?
You’ll want to conduct enough groups so that you capture the widest range of participant experiences and opinions. A 2017 study found that 80% of all themes will be captured in only 2 – 3 groups; 90% of all response themes, or categories, will be captured with 3 – 6 groups. If your focus group participants are very different, you’ll need to conduct a larger number of groups. Groups with highly similar participants will exhaust all themes more quickly.

What information will we need to collect from participants?
You may want to collect basic demographic information (age, gender, race/ethnicity, etc.) from your participants. If so, you can develop a short, anonymous survey to be administered as participants are arriving.

You may also need or want to ensure your participants have provided informed consent. Based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Policy for Protection of Human Research Subjects [45 CFR 46.101 (b)(2)], most focus groups do not require a consent form or approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB). With that said, it’s always a good idea to check with a local IRB to ensure you aren’t violating any research ethics regulations.

If you do decide to use a consent form, or are required to do so by an IRB, your form will include details on:

  • The study, including why it’s being conducted and how the results will be used
  • The fact that participation is voluntary and may be revoked at any time
  • The recording of the focus groups and what efforts will be made to ensure confidentiality of responses

Here are some links to great sample consent forms:

Clemson University
University of Edinburgh

What incentives will we offer?
Offering incentives is one of the best ways to ensure participation. Common incentives include cash, gift cards, and food. You may also incentivize participants by appealing to their sense of community responsibility.

Although your incentive choices may be limited by your budget, it’s important to provide incentives that will be useful to the participants and are appropriate, based on the amount of time you’re asking them to commit.


Before you begin recruiting your participants, create a system to track everyone who registers and ensure your recruiters have all the information they’ll need to share with potential participants. This includes:

  • The purpose of your focus group
  • How the results will be used and why it’s important
  • Who is conducting the focus groups
  • Benefits of participating
  • Dates, times, and locations
  • Incentives
  • Any resources that will be offered to support participation (e.g., bus passes or child care)

There are lots of ways you can recruit participants. Here are some examples:

  • Integrate your focus group with an existing community group or meeting.
  • Invite current and/or previous clients or participants with a personalized phone call or email.
  • Advertise in the newspaper, on the radio, or through flyers or social media posts.

As people agree to participate, record their phone numbers and email or mailing addresses in your tracking system. Immediately after registration, email or mail each participant a letter with all the details of the focus group, why it’s important, and what incentives they’ll receive for participating. Also plan to call them the day before the focus group to confirm their attendance.

Okay, now you’re ready to implement your focus groups. Be sure to check out the next two posts: How to conduct a focus group and How to analyze focus group data.

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

Follow us!
Share Article

Grant Readiness

November 28, 2018

Leave a Reply