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Last modified May 16, 1996



HERE IS a handbook on understanding and conducting focus groups. The information presented here is especially valuable if you are running an organized prevention campaign. The example is based on a Radio Public Awareness Campaign that you might use to complement parenting, child safety, relationship or violence prevention programs.

Well planned and consistent focus group activities can be accomplished on very little effort. One round of focus groups can be run -- from planning to report -- with only two days of effort over a two-week period. We recommend 3 rounds of focus groups every year.

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Focus Group Handbook

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How do you know if your community needs a particular program? How can you find out if the program you have matches up with that need? How can you craft your messages, publicity and advertising to attract your target populations? How can you tell if the programs you run are having any impact in the community. Needs assessment, marketing, and program evaluation are the basic tools of the trade. These three should interact with and inform each other. Unfortunately, the press of daily activity often cuts in on the amount of time a program manager has to devote to assessment, marketing and evaluation. Yet, in a "show-of-hands" survey of almost 1,000 attendees at the Family Advocacy Staff Training (FAST Course) participants indicated that they devote as much as 20% of their time to marketing.

An effective way of meeting those marketing goals is needed. Focus group interviews of families, soldiers, NCO's, commanders and family-serving professionals is one practical way to bring the three together. Done efficiently, they take little time to do, they yield high results, and they build a connection between those who provide programs and those who use them. [ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

Focus groups are organized small group discussions. They are "focused" in two ways. First, the persons being interviewed are similar in some way (e.g., army family members new to the installation as a group, family service providers as a group). Second, the purpose of the interview is to gather information about a single topic or narrow range of topics guided by a set of open discussion questions.
The intent of focus groups is to develop a broad and deep understanding of the topic of interest rather than a quantitative summary. The emphasis is on insights, responses, and opinions rather than specific facts. The result often is a richer understanding of what is needed by clientele, what program responses they might find appealing or appropriate, and what programs really made a difference for their families.

Focus groups help you identify needs because they give potential clients a chance to describe where their true interests lie. They help you market programs because they help you focus your attention on which programs will be most likely to be "bought" by your target clients. They help you evaluate your work because you can go back to the focus group after you've tried what they suggested, and find out how things worked out as a result of your actions. [ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

The usual format for a focus group interview is a series of small group discussions (typically involving 8 to 12 persons) running a maximum of about two hours. One hour is better than two. And a series of 3 groups is better than doing only one or two. Multiple groups are recommended since each discussion is highly influenced by who is involved and the comments that happen to surface early in each session.

The discussion follows a predetermined series of questions but can be far ranging and often involve unanticipated but pertinent side conversations. Questions should be open ended, typically not involving a "yes/no" response. Avoid asking "Why?" (to get past obvious or stereotypical responses), and flow as a natural conversation might. "How and What" questions usually work well. The number of questions should be small (about eight or less) and go in a sequence from very broad or general to very narrow or specific. A skillful moderator is needed to keep the discussion on topic without stifling responses. If the moderator is successful, the discussion will occur between and among group members under guidance of the moderator rather than one-to-one with the moderator.

The simplest way to document the focus group's ideas is to use note-takers. When possible, at least two note-takers are used to help assure that nuances are captured. The note taker's job is to
  • describe the sense of what each person says,
  • capture the general flow of the discussion (the common ideas expressed)

    The interview itself is in three parts: (1) the opening, (2) the ground rules (3) the interview questions, and (4) the wrap up.

    The opening includes welcomes and introductions, review of the purpose of the interview, and ground rules.

    The ground rules include that everyone's ideas count, that all should have opportunity to speak, that confidentiality will be maintained, and that only summarized information will be communicated.

    The interview questions provide a framework and guidance for the conversation among interviewees to explore the topic(s) of interest. The primary questions will always derive from the purpose of the focus group. To help the group make the most of the session, questions that probe the issues or follow up on participant statements are important tools for the facilitator.

    The wrap up often includes a "cooling down" exercise, for example, asking group members to say "one thing that you heard here that was really important", expression of thanks to the participants, and restatement of how the information will be used. [ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

    The information collected should be summarized in a brief report which includes:
    1) Description of the purpose, site, and participants in the interview.
    2) Question by question summaries/characterizations of answers that the group gave to each question.
    3) Any comments that might have been only expressed by one person but seem relevant to the topic(s) at hand.
    4) An overall summary of what was learned from the group. [ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

    Focus groups are not appropriate for gathering specific, quantified, factual information such as rates or extent of participation. Similarly, they are not appropriate for determining consensus within a group (since they explore diversity of opinion rather than consensus). They do not represent random feedback from participants but rather feedback from purposely selected individuals.
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    1. Purpose statement: Since the ultimate goal of the Family Advocacy Program is healthy families and strong soldiers, we need to know what supports and what hinders positive parenting and family relations.

    2. How groups might be define/recruited:
    a. Defining groups: Every constituency involved in the installation has its own special insight into what makes for healthy families. Recruit a special groups from each of these constituencies:
    - Company-level commanders
    - Officer's wives
    - Unit commanders and wives
    - Troops
    - Soldiers and spouses
    - Human service professionals and school teachers
    b. Recruiting groups: Use your contacts on the installation to help you create and convene these groups.
    - A note from the installation commander, supporting the focus group process will be a real asset.
    - The chaplain, school principal, and professionals you work closely with can help you find participants, too.
    - Make sure the groups include a broad representation of installation life: just working with "successful" families or "helpful" officers will not give you the richness of information that a mixed group provides.

    3. Question Route: The basic goal of a focus group is to focus on a particular issue. The primary question in this case is "what helps -- and what hinders -- families from being strong enough to avoid child abuse and family violence?"
    In the warm-up period, after setting the ground rules, tell the group what your purpose is, and tell them that you are seeing them as the experts. Let them know you intend to use this information as a way of assessing what your programs can do to meet your mission. So this is the assessment goal.
    Also tell them that you are using what you learn to help you design programs to meet the needs, and to learn how to "sell" those program opportunities to soldiers and families who can benefit from the opportunities you can offer. This is your primary marketing goal.

    The question route starts here, and it allows you to ask the primary questions, and then probe and follow the thinking of the group. The question route goes in these two directions, of probing for further insights, and following the train of thought of the participants.

    First Question

    -- What hinders families from being strong?

    Comment: Usually, people find it easier to identify what doesn't seem to be working than to start by saying what does work.

    Typical Probes:

    What factors in their own lives hinder them?
    What factors in their careers hinder them?
    What stresses do spouses and children experience?
    What stresses come from their backgrounds?
    What stresses come from how they learned to be parents and spouses?

    Second Question

    -- What helps families to be strong and resilient and self-reliant?

    Comment: Once the "negatives" start coming out, it is not unusual for someone in the group to want to point out some positives. If no one does, it is the job of the facilitator to move the discussion to what works?

    What does a family's experience provide them with that is helpful?
    What constitutes a strong family, and how do families get that way?
    How does an Army career contribute to that strength?
    Where do strong families get their supports?
    Who helps families become strong, and how is that done?
    Where are the best sources of support on our installation?
    Where else does support come from?

    Follow-up question examples:
    IF a participant says "The Army supports its own"
    THEN ask "Can anyone give some examples?

    IF a participant says "Some families just won't make it"
    THEN ask "How do you recognize such families?"

    IF a participant says "People get help from their friends and buddies"
    THEN ask "Let's talk about how that works in Army life, and how that is different from civilian life."

    IF the participant says "We have some good programs here through Community Services"
    THEN ask "Which programs do you all think are good, and say something about why they work."

    Following up on what the participants say is a good way to obtain concrete information on "what helps and what hinders families."

    4. Assessment and Marketing

    Third Question:

    Before the "cool down" period, ask "From what we have been saying, what are the most important ways of supporting families you can think of?

    Comment: This question can inspire concrete ideas that are practical, now that the group has explored both obstacles and supports for strong families.

    Fourth Question:

    What are some of the ways of getting soldiers and families to take advantage of these ideas we've been discussing?

    Comment: With this question, you are completing the session on the topic of marketing.

    5. Cool Down

    Ask: "Before we end, does anyone want to say what they think is the most important thing that was said here today?"

    Ask: "Any final comments anyone wants to add?

    Ask if anyone wants to get a copy of the summary report from this group.

    Ask if anyone would be willing to participate in a follow-up focus group, when you will be seeking input on how the picture is changing, and how you have tried to respond to what you've learned today.

    Comment: If you find that focus groups start to address your needs, you may want to use them to go on to evaluate your efforts. Sometimes focus groups lead us to undertaking a new course of action to achieve the mission of FAP and Community Services. Going back to identical groups every six months to a year is a solid way of re-assessing what has been undertaken in the meantime. It is also a good way to document what new sources of support and stress have emerged since the last contact. [ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

    The key ideas that come from conducting focus groups with several different constituencies will be obvious in the report. A meeting with your colleagues to discuss the report can quickly yield a strategy on where to focus future efforts in meeting required prevention program objectives.

    Be sure to look at the general flow of the discussion for ways of improving your program planning. Look at the characteristic language of the discussion to find new messages you can create to send to your various audiences -- from command to the community.

    As you do successive rounds of focus groups, you will begin to observe signs that general attitudes and impressions may be shifting. If they are moving in a positive direction, congratulations! Keep the ball rolling in that direction. If not, it may be time to pull a team together to explore new strategies. At the very least, the focus group reports will show you what your key audiences are thinking. Some teamwork may help you target new solutions to persistent challenges. A cooperative effort involving troops, commanders, families and ACS professionals will help you reinforce your mission and your focus.[ Return to Index ] [ Return to Top ]

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