Analyzing & Reporting Focus Group Results


Richard A. Krueger

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    My roots in textual analysis go back to undergraduate studies at Bethel College and to religious leaders who taught Biblical interpretation. Their painstaking rigor taught me that words have a beautiful ability to communicate. These teachers taught me that words were special and that diligence and care were needed to unlock what was meant.

    This book builds on a rich legacy of academic researchers who have insisted on careful attention to systematic procedures. These scholars come from many disciplines. Their skill is complex and often undervalued, but they've contributed greatly to our understanding of language and communication.

    Mary Anne Casey and I have worked together on a number of focus group projects. She has taught me a great deal about the analysis and reporting process, and much of what is contained in this book grows out of her common sense and insightful approaches. Her solid grounding in academic approaches combined with her practical, no-nonsense writing style have created scores of high-quality and very readable reports.

    Michael Q. Patton has taught me how to think about analysis. He has the remarkable ability to get to the heart of the issue and describe it in no-nonsense terms. He continually raised my level of understanding through the careful processing of information. These tools are indispensable to the analyst.

    David Morgan, friend and valued colleague, invited me to assist in the preparation of this collection of books and has been invaluable in offering suggestions and strategies that clarify the writing and presentation of ideas.

    I'm indebted to a cadre of professional moderators who continually strive to improve their own skills. Day after day they are on the road, listening, analyzing, and presenting results. They are a wonder to watch because they move seamlessly through the analysis process, produce results on time, and do it with the highest of quality. Marilyn Raush and Reyn Kinzey are examples of such people; I am grateful for their additions to this volume.

    Thanks to the many masters of focus group interviewing. They have continually pushed for the highest quality results, and they have taught many others by their personal example, their writing, and their sharing of ideas. While many names could be mentioned, I am particularly appreciative to Saul Ben-Zeev, Harold Cook, Mary Debus, Thomas Greenbaum, Naomi Henderson, Judy Langer, Tom Quirk, and Susan Schwartz McDonald.

    The production quality was improved by Susan Wladaver-Morgan, who offered editing suggestions. The staff at Sage Publications continually were most helpful. Their editors were encouraging, creative, and willing to take risks. Special thanks to Diana Axelsen, Ravi Balasuriya, Marquita Flemming, and C. Deborah Laughton for eagerly contributing their talents.

    A good book is one that touches us in several ways. It should be serious, yet funny. It should be challenging, yet comfortable. It should raise the level of thought. But most of all, it should be fun to read. The best test is if you read more than what you intended. I hope that this book does that for you. May you find the insight, the seriousness, the guiding principles, and the humor in this volume.

    Introduction to the Focus Group Kit

    We welcome you to this series of books on focus group interviewing. We hope that you find this series helpful. In this section we would like to tell you a bit about our past work with focus groups, the factors that led to the creation of this series, and an overview of how the book is organized.

    We began our studies of focus group interviewing about the same time. Our academic backgrounds were different (David in sociology and Richard in program evaluation) and yet we were both drawn to focus group interviewing in the 1980s. We both had books published in 1988 on focus group interviewing that resulted from your research and practice with the methodology. At that time we were unaware of one another's work and were pleased to begin a collegial relationship. Over the years we've continued our studies independently, and occasionally our paths crossed and we had an opportunity to work together. In the last decade, we've worked together in writing articles, sharing advice on research studies, and teaching classes. We have generally found that we shared many common thoughts and concerns about focus group interviewing.

    During the 1990s, we found that interest in focus groups continued and we both prepared second editions for our 1988 books. In 1995, the staff at Sage Publications asked us to consider developing a more in-depth treatment of focus group interviewing that would allow for more detail and guide researchers beyond the basic issues. We pondered the request and thought about how the materials might be presented. We weighed a variety of options and finally developed the kit in its present form. We developed this kit in an effort to help guide both novices and experts.

    In these books the authors have occasionally chosen to use the word we. Although the authors share many common experiences with focus groups, our approaches can and do vary, as we hope is the case with other researchers as well. When you see the word we in the books of this series, it typically refers to a judgment decision by the specific author(s) of that particular volume. Much of what the authors have learned about focus groups has been acquired, absorbed and assimilated from the experiences of others. We use we in circumstances where one of us personally has experienced a situation that has been verified by another researcher or when a practice or behavior has become standard accepted practice by a body of focus group moderators. The use of I, on the other hand, tends to refer to situations and experiences that one of us has witnessed that may not have been verified by other researchers.

    In terms of content, we decided on six volumes, each representing a separate theme. The volumes include the following:

    • Volume 1:The Focus Group Guidebook

      This volume provides a general introduction to focus group research. The central topics are the appropriate reasons for using focus groups and what you can expect to accomplish with them. This book is intended to help those who are new to focus groups.

    • Volume 2:Planning Focus Groups

      This volume covers the wide range of practical tasks that need to get done in the course of a research project using focus groups. A major topic is making the basic decisions about the group's format, such as the size of the groups, their composition, the total number of groups, and so forth.

    • Volume 3:Developing Questions for Focus Groups

      This book describes a practical process for identifying powerful themes and then offers an easy-to-understand strategy for translating those themes into questions. This book helps make the process of developing good questions doable by outlining a process and offering lots of examples.

    • Volume 4:Moderating Focus Groups

      The book is an overview of critical skills needed by moderators, the various approaches that successful moderators use, and strategies for handling difficult situations. Rookie moderators will find this book to be an invaluable guide and veteran moderators will discover tips and strategies for honing their skills.

    • Volume 5:Involving Community Members in Focus Groups

      This book is intended for those who want to teach others to conduct focus group interviews, particularly non-researchers in communities. Volunteers can often gather and present results more effectively than professionals. A critical element is how the volunteers are prepared and the manner in which they work together.

    • Volume 6:Analyzing and Reporting Focus Group Results

      Analysis of focus group data is different from analysis of data collected through other qualitative methodologies and this presents new challenges to researchers. This book offers an overview of important principles guiding focus group research and then suggests a systematic and verifiable analysis strategy.

    Early on we struggled with how these materials might be presented. In order to help you find your way around the series, we developed several strategies. First, we are providing an expanded table of contents and an overview of topics at the beginning of each chapter. These elements help the reader quickly grasp the overall picture and understand the relationship between specific sections. Second, we've attempted to make the indexes as useful as possible. Volumes 2–6 contain two indexes: an index for that volume and an index to help you find your way around the entire kit of six books. Finally, we are using icons to identify materials of interest. These icons serve several purposes. Some icons help you locate other materials within the series that amplify a particular topic. Other icons expand on a particular point, share a story or tip, or provide background material not included in the text. We like the icons because they have allowed us to expand on certain points without interrupting the flow of the discussion. The icons have also allowed us to incorporate the wisdom of other focus group experts. We hope you find them beneficial. We've also included icons in the book to help you discover points of interest.

    The BACKGROUND icon identifies the bigger picture and places the current discussion into a broader context.
    The CAUTION icon highlights an area where you should be careful. These are especially intended to help beginners spot potholes or potential roadblocks.
    The CHECKLIST icon identifies a list of items that are good to think about; they may or may not be in a sequence.
    The EXAMPLE icon highlights stories and illustrations of general principles.
    The EXERCISE icon suggests something you could do to practice and improve your skills, or something you could suggest to others to help them improve their skills.
    The GO TO icon is a reference to a specific place in this book or one of the other volumes where you will find additional discussion of the topic.
    The KEY POINT icon identifies the most important things in each section. Readers should pay attention to these when skimming a section for the first time or reviewing it later.
    The TIP icon highlights a good practice to follow or something that has successfully worked for us.

    We hope you find this series helpful and interesting.

    RichardA.KruegerSt. Paul, Minnesota
    DavidL.MorganPortland, Oregon

    About this Book

    In the early years of focus group interviews, from the late 1950s through the 1960s, focus groups were seldom used by academics. One of the main reasons that focus groups weren't accepted by academics was analysis. Simply put, analysis was confusing, and it was difficult to develop systematic protocol that would apply to the diversity of situations encountered. Focus groups were different in major ways from other interviewing situations. In this book, we hope to identify the distinctive features of focus group analysis and suggest strategies that will improve the quality of analysis.

    We're sharing ideas and suggestions as we would offer them to a friend—a friend who is about to analyze focus groups. When sharing with friends, our intent is to accomplish the desired results in a pragmatic manner. We offer strategies that we've found to be helpful in doing analysis.

    An assumption inherent in this book is that you probably won't read the volume from beginning to end. While it is certainly feasible to use the book in that way, we've found that many researchers regularly skip sections, go back and forth to topics of interest, and skim other chapters. We've tried to organize the book so that you can quickly find areas of concern and just maybe discover some interesting information along the way that you hadn't anticipated. We will feel successful if you find more than you anticipated in this book.

  • Postscript: For Graduate Students Only

    Graduate students regularly ask about the possibility of using focus groups as research in graduate dissertations: “Can I actually use focus groups in my study?” We'd like to reflect on their concerns.

    The dissertation is a quest for knowledge and an opportunity to discover insights into theories and concepts. This is a lofty goal and an important perspective. The purpose of the dissertation, from a faculty view, is for the student to demonstrate expertise in research, to show mastery of a field of study, to undertake independent study, and to do all these things at a level of excellence typical of the institution. The examination committee exists for the purpose of evaluating the quality of the product.

    It is critical for you, the student, to know the basis on which you will be judged. Typically, it will be on the manner and procedures used in conducting the research. While it may be satisfying to you to make discoveries that are beneficial and have theoretical or practical benefits, these alone will not constitute a successful defense of your dissertation. The test is the degree to which you followed prescribed rules. If modifications were made, you must understand and be able to explain the theoretical basis and consequences of those changes.

    Therefore, it is essential that you be well grounded in whatever research procedure used. You are expected to perform the research procedure according to accepted specifications. Your ability to do this is acquired from training, study, and experience.

    Before we go further, let's address the opening question in two parts. First, can focus groups in general be used as a research procedure in graduate dissertations? The second question is more specific and must be answered by you, in concurrence with your adviser. The question is, should focus groups be used as the research procedure in your study?

    The answer to the first question is clear. Yes, focus group research can be used in graduate dissertations. Focus groups can be used alone or with other research procedures. The answer to the second question is, it depends. Here are some topics that you may wish to consider as you reflect on your specific study.

    1. What's the Case for Focus Groups in this Particular Study?

    Do focus groups fit your research specifications? How do focus groups compare with alternative means of gathering information? What specifically makes focus group research appropriate for your study? What is the case against using focus groups? Every research procedure has disadvantages and limitations. Know how you will respond to these questions. Remember that research begins with the problem or question; the methodology flows out of that problem or question.

    2. What's the Tradition of your Department or University?

    Graduate universities, and degree programs within those institutions, can vary greatly in what they consider to be acceptable research procedures. Some are extraordinarily bound by tradition, while others are open to emerging research procedures. Find out what the range has been in the past. Does the climate foster differing research paradigms? Look over dissertations completed in the past few years, and categorize the research procedures. What variation has taken place? You are at greater risk when you use a research procedure unfamiliar to faculty. When faculty do not understand or accept the epistemology of a particular research procedure, they will likely have difficulty in evaluating the dissertation. Focus group research is relatively new in academic research. Don't be surprised if you find that it hasn't been done in your department.

    Suppose that you find no studies using focus group interviewing. Does that mean that you can't do it? Not necessarily. Quite a number of faculty are open and eager to examine and use emerging research procedures. In fact, some faculty may see the chance to work with you as a co-learning opportunity to discover more about a topic of interest. If this occurs, your role will change slightly, and you will be seen as the leader of the discovery team. In this role, you will be expected to understand the research procedures thoroughly, to stay in regular communication with faculty, and to keep them abreast of concerns, issues, and developments.

    3. Do you have Time and Access to Resources?

    Qualitative research often takes more time to collect and analyze data than does quantitative research. Focus group research for a dissertation can be a substantial time investment, and it may also require money for food, travel, facilities, or honorariums. You'll need to tape record and, if at all possible, to type the transcripts yourself. You'll be expected to know your data thoroughly. Usually, you will also want to use a computer analysis program to document that your procedures are systematic and verifiable. Before you get too far into the planning, consider the resources needed for success. Can you make the time investment? Do you have resources available? If you don't have the resources, can you get them from somewhere else?

    4. Do you have the Skills?

    Do you have the necessary skills to conduct focus group research? You may need to seek training, locate a mentor, and develop your personal experience. The dissertation should not be your first experience with conducting focus groups. Volunteer your time and conduct some focus groups for an organization before you use them for your graduate study.

    5. Is your Adviser Supportive?

    Early on, discuss the possibility of focus group research with your adviser. You absolutely must have the support and confidence of the person directing your thesis or dissertation. Don't proceed unless your adviser approves.

    6. Do you have the Right Committee Members?

    Select your committee carefully. Find people who understand qualitative research, have had experience with it, and are flexible and open to inquiry. Incidentally, don't assume that, just because they are knowledgeable or experienced with qualitative research, they are open to differing research procedures, including focus groups. Be sure that your committee is accepting of focus groups in the way that you wish to use them. Stay in touch with your committee.

    7. Do you have a Sound and Defensible Design?

    Plan the study carefully. Have enough focus groups. Be certain that you are listening to the right people. Consider the benefits of multiple methods, including quantitative as well as qualitative research.

    8. Can you Meet the Expectations of Human Subjects Committees?

    In most universities, the student must meet the requirements of human subjects committees which document that participants are adequately informed of the study and are participating willingly. Often, the focus group participants must read and sign a statement acknowledging that they are willing participants. The challenge to you is to prepare the consent form so that it conveys appropriate information without unduly providing background information that could sway or limit the sharing. As you seek to meet this human subjects requirement, remember the unique characteristics that make a focus group work. Part of the challenge is to provide sufficient advance information so that participants are aware of the study but not so much information that participants rush to solutions before they fully articulate and understand the problem. Unless this statement is prepared carefully, it can constrain and limit the thought process of participants. Moreover, be careful to maintain the permissive, informal, and nonthreatening atmosphere that is essential to the focus group. Legal-sounding documents that need signatures can work against you.

    9. Can you Verify Results with Participants when you are Finished?

    Share the findings and conclusions with participants and invite their comments. After all groups are completed and you have prepared your findings, you may seek to verify these results with the participants. This could be in writing or, preferably, in person. This process of verification serves several purposes. At the most basic level, it seeks to present findings back to participants as a check to ensure that the findings are correct. You can also use this opportunity to present your interpretation and to encourage and entertain other interpretations. In addition, you can open a discussion of implications and recommendations. Another purpose of the verification process is unique to the public sector and represents a philosophy of research that you may wish to adopt. The philosophy is that researchers who ask the community for help in obtaining information should give back to that community as much as, or more than, what they received. Admittedly, not all researchers share this view, but give thought to how sharing results fits your philosophy and applies to your study.

    10. Do you have the Self-Discipline?

    This project is going to take lots of work, and you will regularly need to discipline yourself to continue—like after a long day at work, or when your family wants attention, or when you can think of a thousand more enjoyable things to do. Qualitative research tends to be ill-structured, and you will feel that you are continually making difficult decisions. Sometimes, students are drawn to qualitative research because they have difficulties with quantitative research. They consider statistics to be too difficult, and focus groups seem so easy when compared with quantitative procedures. Think again! Focus groups, like other forms of qualitative research, will demand superb skills in listening, analyzing, and writing. Many faculty consider statistical procedures to be easier and faster for dissertation research. Qualitative research is not the easy path!


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    Index to the Focus Group Kit

    The letter preceding the page number refers to the volume, according to the following key:

    G Volume 1: The Focus Group Guidebook

    P Volume 2: Planning Focus Groups

    Q Volume 3: Developing Questions for Focus Groups

    M Volume 4: Moderating Focus Groups

    I Volume 5: Involving Community Members in Focus Groups

    A Volume 6: Analyzing and Reporting Focus Group Results

    About the Author

    Richard A. Krueger is a professor and evaluation leader at the University of Minnesota. He teaches in the College of Education and Human Development and serves as an evaluation specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Over the past decade, he has taught hundreds of people to plan, conduct, and analyze focus group interviews. He loves stories. Perhaps that is what drew him to focus group interviews. Where else can one hear so many stories in such a short period of time?

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