Planning and Moderating Focus Groups

Focus groups are planned discussions designed to elicit specific information, thoughts, or opinions from a targeted group of people. I have been asked repeatedly about how best to prepare for and run these groups, so I collected ideas and  resources here.

I would appreciate feedback, discussion and suggestions


Whether you are planning your own focus group discussion or for a sponsor, it is very important to be clear about what you want the focus groups to accomplish. This will guide the development of your focus group questions. Answering the following questions may help with this step:

  • How will the information from the focus groups be used?
  • What will it be used for?
  • Who will use the information?
  • What new, if any, information do you want to get from the focus groups?

You need to conduct at least 3 focus groups as you are likely to get one “rogue” group where you are given answers that are very different from the norm. If you only commission one focus group, you do not know whether it is a rogue group or not; if you commission two that disagree with one another, you do not know which one is the rogue. As you may be looking at different sets of people in your market place, the usual number of focus groups commissioned is 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12. The number of groups you run is dictated by how many different segments of the market you are examining (e.g. by age, sex, geography, behavior etc.).

It is usually more effective to conduct a series of focus groups than to try to find out everything at once. This is a mantra of usability specialists. We try to impress upon others; that consistent testing throughout the life of a project will always produce better results than trying to cram all of the testing into one session at the end of development. One piece of learning often changes your perspective, and therefore the questions you want to ask, so take it in manageable chunks.


This step really depends on the type of information that you hope to get from the focus groups. If this is a relatively unexplored topic, there may not be information available for review. For other topics, review relevant sources about the topic. For instance, if you want to know what college students think about health insurance, do an internet search to see what others have reported about their findings. You can use other findings to make your questions more specific or perhaps other work can reveal a relatively untapped area that you hadn’t considered. The bottom line is to make sure that you have a basis for asking each focus group question.


Clearly defining the objective for your focus group is critical. Once you have determined the type of information you are seeking, establish five to six questions that will provide this information. These should be open-ended non-biased questions that allow participants to express their thoughts. Since most focus group discussions last 1 to 1.5 hours, your final draft should 5 to 6 questions, however, while writing your initial draft, there is no limit- you’re just trying to capture the information (12 questions for the initial draft might be sufficient if you plan to use only 5 to 6 in the actual focus group).

There are a number of different opinions about the number of questions that are adequate for a focus group discussion. It really comes down to whether you think you can get quality information with the number of questions you decide to use. One of the benefits of focus groups is that you can really get in depth information from participants. So, usually, less is more.

Good questions create a conversation and they create those conversations without putting anyone in the spot. You don’t want your group members to feel like they are in school, or taking a test. You also don’t want a scenario where you are the learned teacher asking all the questions, and the group members are under pressure to know the answers you expect from them.

In contrast, some of the best discussion questions solicit input from everyone present. The best example of this is to ask people what they think. There is no wrong answer to the question, “What do you think?”

Good questions can be understood by anyone immediately. The group leader will want to keep the questions simple enough that everyone has a reasonable chance of knowing what they mean the first time they say it.

“Ladder” what you think you want to know – ask “Why?”, and then ask “Why?” again. Brainstorm what you think people could say, and ask what will be the consequences of each possible outcome


Give your initial draft to the sponsors or other team members. Get their thoughts on which questions capture the essence of the focus group objectives. This step is important in insuring that your questions have face validity (whether they make sense on the surface for what you’re trying to accomplish). Discuss the proposed questionnaire with sponsors as well. One of the main problems with marketing research is not getting the answers to your questions, but getting anyone to buy into the results. You should get your colleagues on board with what you are doing as early as possible, and get them involved in imagining different scenarios based on the results


Refining your focus group questions will likely be an iterative process. Use the feedback from others to refine your questions and get the list down to 5 to 6 questions.

  • Use only open-ended questions (questions to which the answer is NOT a simple yes or no or other short answer).
  • Also questions should proceed from general to specific. For instance, your first question could be “What have you heard about health care insurance?” The goal of the initial question is to get the participants thinking about the topic and will also provide some insight into how the participants view the topic or what has influenced their views.
  • Include prompts (key words or phrases to hone in on a particular concept) for focus group questions where you anticipate people will need help gathering their thoughts. For instance, a prompt for the initial question “What have you heard about health care insurance?” might be “In the news” or ” From your parents or other adults”.


After you have refined the focus group questions, let the sponsor or other team members review them again. Make modifications as necessary.


The moderator’s guide is the “script” that your focus group moderator or facilitator will use. In addition to the focus group questions, it can include any other information that should be shared during the focus groups (i.e. objectives, ground rules for the focus group discussion).

A focus group questionnaire is called a “discussion guide”, and is more of a check list of questions than a fully structured questionnaire. This is because the trick with focus groups is to put the group firmly in charge, and only to guide them around the topic as the research objectives dictate. An important note, though, you will usually have one person who tries to dominate the group, and another couple who would prefer to say nothing, so you will have the difficult task of quieting one of them down, and of livening the other two up.

The full format of a discussion guide will run something like:

  1. An introduction to the objectives of the research, sufficient to orientate the participants and put them at their ease, but not so specific as to bias the results, or compromise the client
  2. Introduce the rules of focus groups – everything said and done is confidential and will not be used outside the room except for the purposes of the research; every statement is right; please do not hesitate to disagree with someone else; but only one person should speak at a time
  3. Ask people to describe who they are and say a few words on some gentle topic introduced by the moderator (to get everyone to say something). An example might be “What is your favorite TV program?”
  4. Ask another very general, non-threatening question (again ensuring that everyone says something). An example might be “Where do you do most of your food shopping, and why?”
  5. Introduce the topic under review, but from a wider perspective than the client is specifically interested in. If you are investigating baby products, you might ask “Do you keep all your baby supplies in one area or are they spread around the house?”
  6. Ask increasingly more precise questions on the topic under review. For baby products you may cover who changes diapers, how often, when, what type of diapers are used and why, what is good/bad about them, which brands they prefer, what they really hate about diapers, what they think of the packaging/advertising, where they buy them etc.
  7. Utilize some games, known as “projective techniques”, once you start discussing the topic under review. There are many projective techniques, some of which include:
    1. Completing the bubbles – where you have two people/objects talking to each other. What would they be saying?
    2. Impersonation – how would the brand/product/service behave if it were a human being?
    3. Complete the sentence – give participants the start of a sentence, and then get them to finish it
    4. Draw the brand/product/service in the context of where you would use it
  8. Get participants to react to concepts, products or advertisements. You may have something you are working on. Test it out, without being so specific as to lose intellectual property rights
  9. Bring the meeting to a close by summarizing the main points
  10. If appropriate, you could introduce the client at the end of the session to say thank you


For the focus group, choose a quiet room that will be free of distractions and invite six to ten people from your target group to participate in the session. Each session should last from 1 hour to 90 minutes. Arrange people in a circle around a table so they can see each other.

Participants should be selected from a target group that can provide you with the data you need. If you are seeking opinions on a software program, select people who use that or a similar product. If you are seeking information on a new baby product, include parents of young children.


The moderator’s job is critical. She opens the meeting, sets the agenda, explains the topics to be discussed, keeps the group on track and ensures that no participant dominates the group. Equally important, the moderator should never discuss her own opinions or argue with the participants about their opinions. The moderator’s job is to facilitate the free flow of ideas among the participants. The moderator will also record the session for later analysis, and participants must be told the session is being recorded at the beginning of the focus group.

Focus groups aim primarily to dig deep into the underlying drivers and causation of behavior on a psychological level, and are often run by trained psychologists. They want to achieve a rounded understanding of the participants’ experience of the topic. In recent years, moderators have begun taking scores from the interviewees. This helps to get a sense of whether one person is leading the group into a particular line of responses, or whether views are generally held, but it also stops the flow of the conversation and can get in the way of obtaining a “deeper” understanding and more intimate disclosures. In Europe, some research agencies use rigorous content analysis to generate numerical results, not so as to provide statistically reliable information, but rather to get a more accurate picture of what was being said by the interviewees. One of the problems with exploratory research is that, because you are not collecting numbers, you can pay undue attention to the most articulate people you interview. Rigorous content analysis avoids this problem.


Following the focus group, information gathered should be analyzed and reported. The report should include the composition of the group, discussion themes, questions or concerns of the participants and trends that arose during the discussions. If multiple focus groups are held, the report should compare and contrast findings between the various groups.

Additional resources:

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