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What are focus groups?

Authors: Claudia Zanini and Julia Amann (Swiss Paraplegic Research)

Sources: 1) Gibbs A. Focus groups. Social research update. 1997;19. 2) Morgan DL. Focus groups. Annual review of Sociology. 1996;22:129-52. 3) Wong LP. Focus group discussion: a tool for health and medical research. Singapore Medical Journal. 2008;49(3):256-61.
A focus group is a qualitative research method with the purpose of gaining insights from a specific group of people on a certain topic through a moderated discussion.

What are focus groups?

A focus group is “an organized group discussion with a selected group of individuals to gain information about their views and experiences of a topic” (Gibbs 1997).

Focus groups are a qualitative research method. Research based on focus groups uses as data the discussions of the participants. The exchange of experiences in a focus group produces the so-called group effect, namely a mutual stimulation of memories and ideas.

How does a focus group work?

A focus group is composed of about six to ten participants and a trained moderator. The moderator suggests topics for discussion that are in relation to the research question of the study and invite the participants to interact. The discussion lasts from one to two hours.

Benefits and limitations of focus groups as a research method

The main benefit of focus groups is that they allow to gather a big amount of information in a short period of time. Thanks to group interaction and discussion, participants can build on each other’s ideas, and topics and themes emerge that otherwise might not come up in an individual interview, let alone a survey. By bringing out aspects that might not have been anticipated by the researcher, focus groups can therefore lead to the discovery of new phenomena.

As every research method, focus groups have some limitations. Results from studies based on focus groups are rarely generalizable to the population of interest, because of the small number of participants and because the selected participants usually do not accurately represent the views of the population. Moreover, focus groups studies can suffer from an experimenter bias (i.e. the researcher is part of the interaction and could influence it), groupthink (i.e. group members tend to minimize conflict) and social desirability bias (i.e. people tend to give answers that are socially acceptable).

When are focus groups used?

Focus groups are traditionally used in marketing research to investigate the preferences of consumers in the developmental phase of a product (e.g. for packaging, name). In usability engineering, focus groups are used to test the user friendliness of a software, a device or a website.

In health research, focus groups are used at different stages of a research project and for different purposes. For instance, focus groups can be conducted in the preliminary phase of a project to generate hypothesis. When conducted during a study, focus groups can be used to gain understanding of people’s experiences of illness, to explore people’s perception of causes of diseases, or to identify people’s beliefs about health risk behaviors or public attitude toward health services and health providers. At the end of a project, focus groups can be used to get feedback from the participants, help to explain unexpected outcomes or generate further avenues of research.

An example for the application of focus groups in the field of SCI would be the study “The individual experience of functioning and disability in Switzerland – patient perspective and person-centeredness in spinal cord injury”, which aimed at exploring the aspects of functioning and disability that are relevant to individuals with spinal cord injury by conducting nine focus groups.

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