Discussion groups

What is the discussion group?

Discussion groups (also known as ‘focus’ groups) are an example of a technique imported into social research from market research. They have been widely used in political circles to “road test” policies. A dis­cussion groups consists of a number of individuals you invite to discuss their views on a particular topic, typically involving between 6 and 12 people, which is conducted specifically to get a group of people’s views on a subject. Groups can be constructed in order to attempt to recreate demographics.

When should it be used?

Discussion groups are best applied when rich, in-depth material from a number of people is required. Being part of a group often creates a more relaxed atmosphere than a one-to-one interview. Therefore, information gathered from discussion groups is often more varied than if participants had been interviewed on a one-to-one basis. Another advantage of using discussion groups, as opposed to one-to-one interviews, is that they provide in-depth information from a number of individuals simultaneously, making it a time effective method of gathering data.

What do I need to consider?

Practical issues

Discussion groups usually last one hour or so and include between six to twelve participants. Participant recruitment is very important and can be done through a range of methods, including client contact lists, existing networks and databases, advertising in appropriate public plac­es and via the media, and ‘hanging around’ places asking people to join in. These varied methods of recruitment mean that discussion groups can be targeted at different participants, including groups traditionally considered ‘hard to reach’, such as young people and people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Incentivising participants for their time requires some ethical consideration. However, expenses for travel should always be provided, as well as food and sometimes vouch­ers or cash payment.

Decide on the make up of the groups – identify the key groups and individuals that you need to speak to depending on what you need to find out. Identify the individuals you need to contact. You may know of people directly or you may require the assistance of others to provide you with a ‘route in’ to finding participants (eg project staff, community champions). If this is the case, simply outline what you intend to do and enquire as to who they think the best people to involve in the focus group would be. However, be aware that you should try to attract a range of participants with different views and experiences and that relying on one person to find all of your participants may limit this taking place.

Arrange a location – ideally the discussion group should be held in a location that is familiar to the participants, as this familiar­ity reduces the anxiety of the participant. The next step is to contact all potential participants to invite them to the group, tell them what it is about, and inform them of the time, location etc. Ensure that you have more contact names than you need for the discussion group as some people may not wish to be involved.


The types of questions that could be asked during a discussion group can be similar to interview questions, such as fact-finding, idea gener­ating, exploratory and experiential. The main rationale for choosing to undertake group discussions as opposed to interviews should not be the type of questions you are asking, rather to whom you are asking the questions. Within group discussions having things to show or to demonstrate can really help the discussion as people interact with each other and the stimulus provided.


Focus group facilitation is a very specific skill, groups are notoriously susceptible to dynamics and can be quite difficult to “control”, conse­quently if your requirements or parameters are very tightly defined then a focus group may be inappropriate. Some people find such situ­ations intimidating and do not contribute as much as they would in a one-to-one situation whilst some people may affect the dynamics by dominating proceedings.

  • In preparing for the discussion, it is worthwhile having a shortlist of questions, ideas and thoughts on the topic. The list could be useful in starting the discussion and ensuring it flows continuously.
  • Ask relevant and open questions so that the discussion has breadth. It is important that the group has a discussion rather than a question and answer session. Therefore try to steer clear of questions that are narrow and can be answered easily without discussion.
  • Encourage group interaction and participation. All members of the group should make a contribution to the discussion. Try to avoid just one or two people dominating.
  • Pursue, capture and develop emerging issues. A good facilitator should spot issues that are emerging in the discussion and try to get the group to discuss them in more detail.
  • Try to ensure that the discussion remains focused on the key themes or issues.

Recording the discussion

This can be done either through the use of a tape recorder or by tak­ing notes. Tape recording the discussion is useful in ensuring that no important points are missed and enables the facilitator to focus on

guiding the discussion rather than taking notes. However, you will need to make sure that you have a good quality tape recorder in order to pick-up the group discussion. A good alternative is to have a note-taker sit in on the discussion.

How Should It Be Used?

Discussion groups are used when seeking the views, perceptions and opinions of people in an open forum. They are often used when more in-depth information is required than that which can be gained from a questionnaire. Compared with interviews, they can be used when confi­dentiality is not an issue and where it is felt that participants are more likely to contribute within a group setting rather than on a one-to-one basis. ‘ttey can often be used to explore issues emerging from other types of research (eg interviews, surveys) in more depth.

What is the output?

The discussion group produces qualitative data about thoughts, views, experiences etc.

How should it be analysed?

Use the information from interviews to identify the relevant themes that emerge from the discussions to put into your evaluation report. There are also statistical packages that you can use to analyse this type of data including:

NUD*IST: a qualitative data analysis package which enables non statis­tical information from interviews, group work, observation etc to be analysed according to chosen criteria. For example, it is possible to use the package to pull out all material relating to key words or phrases (eg neighbourhood renewal). If recorded, you may not need to transcribe the whole discussion but just make relevant notes from the tape. ‘ttis will enable you to quote directly from the discussion within your evalu­ation report, remembering to adhere to any issues of confidentiality.

You select and recruit group membersLack of interest in group could make recruitment difficult
You can control the topicParticipants do not have much to say or some participants dominate discussion
Interaction between participants may prompt new insightsMay be unsuitable for researching sensitive issues

Further reading

Moderating focus groups – ^e national centre for social research provides training courses in moderating or facilitating discussion groups –

Facilitating Workshops – Practical Tips for Workshop Facilitators, Seeds for Change

Click downlaod30 to download PDF version.

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