This is the last post in a three-part series on designing, conducting, and analyzing results from focus groups. Be sure to check out How to Design a Focus Group and How to Conduct a Focus Group before you read this one. Important note: If you’re hoping to do serious journal-worthy qualitative analysis, this post might not be for you. The information here is more appropriate for organizations looking to complete some basic content analysis of their focus group data.
Have you ever wondered what happens to data following a focus group? My guess is that, more often than not, the insights end with the facilitators and a couple folks from the office.
Why does this happen? Because compiling and analyzing focus group data can be overwhelming! Fortunately, there are simple strategies for synthesizing all your participants’ responses into useful information.
Check out the 7 steps below and you’ll be well on your way to qualitative data analysis (sounds impressive, right?!).
As soon as you’ve finished your focus group, take time to debrief with your co-facilitator. Discuss your overall impressions of the group’s responses and make note of any comments or non-verbal communication that the notetaker may have missed. This is also a good time to jot down any themes that emerged during the discussion, since everything will be fresh on your mind. Finally, if you’re conducting multiple focus groups, make sure your notes and any participant surveys are properly labeled.
REVIEW & TRANSCRIBE
Within the next day or so, review all your notes and listen to the audio recording. If you don’t already have a list of themes, or categories, in mind, this is a good time to start your list.
You may also want to create a transcription of the groups’ discussions to help you categorize the data and pull out important quotes. You can pay a professional transcription company to do the work for you, which costs around $1.25 per minute of recorded audio, or you can do it yourself (play, type, pause, repeat). If you use a professional service, you’ll want to go back through the transcription with the audio recording and your own notes to highlight any context lost in the text (e.g., tone of voice, sarcasm, etc.). If you do your own transcription, plan to spend about four hours transcribing for every hour of focus group recording.
Here are a few pointers if you decide to do your own transcription:
- Remember to transcribe the questions that were asked. This will help you keep your data organized when you start analyzing it.
- Avoid the temptation of adding in words. People don’t speak like they would write; just type what you hear and don’t worry about grammar.
- Add in any collective group responses. For example, if everyone laughed or cheered following a response.
- Make note of any context, as mentioned above.
IDENTIFY YOUR THEMES
If you haven’t already, now’s the time to identify your themes. Themes are basically the major ideas that emerged during your focus group discussion. For example, if your focus group aimed to identify barriers to healthy eating, your themes may include cost, time, knowledge, and access to healthy foods.
You’ve already spent a lot of time with your data, so you should be able to easily identify your themes. Don’t worry about this list being 100% complete – you can always add themes as you start to categorize your data.
ORGANIZE & CATEGORIZE YOUR DATA
Once you have your final transcripts, it’s time to organize and categorize your data. If you conducted multiple focus groups, it will save you time if you combine all your groups’ responses, by question. If you’ll need to eventually identify themes or comments by group, make sure you label each group’s responses so you can distinguish them later.
Once your responses are organized by question, it’s time to categorize all the responses. Here are some options for doing this:
- Option 1: Print out two copies of all your transcripts. Cut out each individual response (I recommend doing this one response at a time) and place each response in a pile, based on its category. If a single response falls into multiple categories, you may need to cut the comment into smaller pieces or make several copies and place all the copies in different piles. Once you’ve categorized all the comments, you can review each stack or paste all the responses on labeled butcher paper.
- Option 2: Print out a copy of all your transcripts (double or triple-spaced works best). Go through the transcript and make a note of the category(ies) beside each comment. You can even have fun with a color-coded pen or highlighter system.
- Option 3: Use Microsoft Excel (or similar program) to create a spreadsheet that’s organized by question and category (or you can download a spreadsheet below for free!). Copy each comment into the appropriate sheet and categorize it appropriately. You can also include a column to keep track of different groups’ responses if you need to.Be prepared to deal with challenging participants.
- Option 4: Finally, you can use a qualitative data analysis program, such as MAXQDA or NVivo but this is probably more than what most organizations need for basic community-based focus group efforts.
Whichever method you use, you’ll want to keep track of any participant quotes that are particularly powerful or capture a theme perfectly. You can highlight these quotes, star them, or draw a box around them – whatever works for you.
INTERPRET & SUMMARIZE
At this point, you (and anyone else who’s been working on the data) will know your data inside and out, which makes interpreting and summarizing fairly easy.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you start to summarize the results:
- What are the main ideas that emerged from all your focus groups?
- What participant quotes summarize the key ideas perfectly?
- What were the most common responses?
- Were the responses different among sub-groups of participants (e.g., by gender, age, etc.)?
- Were there any responses that were often mentioned together?
- How can future focus groups, surveys, or research expand on your findings?
- How might these findings be used to improve programs, services, policies, etc.?
PRESENT YOUR RESULTS
When you’re finished categorizing, analyzing, and summarizing your data, it’s time to present your results. There are lots of ways you can spread the word about your findings:
- Create a series of social media posts that highlight your major findings.
- Speak about your findings at a community event or public radio program.
- Create and share slides with community members or organizational leaders. Your slides will highlight basic information about the focus groups (when they were conducted, number of groups, characteristics of participants) and the most important or relevant findings.
- Write an executive summary that can be shared widely with colleagues, community members, or elected officials.
- Create a formal report. This is probably the least appealing option but may be necessary if you want your findings to be passed along in their entirety. Most formal focus group reports include an executive summary, introduction/background, methodology of your focus group process, major findings, conclusions and recommendations, and appendices for your focus group questions and other relevant documents (like participant surveys).
As you’re preparing and presenting your results, keep two things in mind: 1) your presentation (oral, visual, or written) should be tailored to your receiving audience; and 2) your participants’ responses are theirs alone and can’t be generalized to the entire community, or even similar groups of people.
USE YOUR FINDINGS
I’m sure that the purpose of conducting a focus group was not to write a fancy report that will gather dust in your office. So make sure you use the results for good! Here are just some of the ways you can use your results:
- Use them to guide the development of new programs, services, or policies.
- Share significant findings with elected officials to advocate for community change.
- Incorporate the data into grant proposals.
- Create or modify client/patient education materials that address your community members’ primary concerns.
- Create surveys guided by your findings to gather insights from a larger population.
- Generate interest in and support of your issue by sharing your findings.