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What is a Focus Group Interview?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A focus group interview is a method of research involving a small group of people who are interviewed on a subject of interest to the researcher. The interview results in a wealth of data that can be applied in many different ways. However, there are also some pitfalls to the focus group interview that need to be carefully identified and avoided by researchers who want to generate meaningful results.

The focus group appears to have originated in the marketing community. Marketing research often involves the development of innovative research methods that can be applied not only to understanding consumers, but to other areas of research as well. Focus group interviewing is used today by people in a number of disciplines ranging from sociologists to medical researchers. It is not uncommon to see solicitations aimed at members of the public inviting them to participate in focus group interviews. People who are interested in being involved in research can contact local universities and colleges to see what kind of opportunities are available.

The focus group interview requires a group of eight to ten people gathered to discuss a particular topic. The sample of people can be selected in a number of ways. A facilitator guides the participants through a series of questions, starting with relatively broad questions and narrowing in to elicit very specific responses. The interview is usually recorded so that none of the responses are missed and sometimes researchers will also study videos to look at things like body language used by participants.

A skilled facilitator is needed to supervise a focus group interview. Groups of people can quickly get off topic or wander in their conversation. For meaningful answers, gentle coaching and guiding are needed to keep people on track. The facilitator has to avoid prompting participants into giving desired answers, however, and thus must walk a fine line between guiding participants through a conversation and telling them what to say. People usually acquire interview skills while they are in college studying topics like marketing and psychological research.

This research method can be very valuable for generating a lot of data and for revealing information that might be more difficult to elicit with written surveys or one on one interviews. In a focus group interview, participants build off other thoughts and ideas and the responses become correspondingly much more complex. The interview approach also provides opportunities for people to respond to questions that were not asked and to expand upon their responses, options that are not available in an alternative research format, such as a survey.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On May 28, 2011

@andee - I agree with you about the interview process that you go through when interested in being part of a paid focus group. I have even been asked questions about where I did my banking. The study ended up being about local banks, so it made sense why you were asked those type of questions, but sometimes you might not feel comfortable giving out so much information.

Companies want to know they are getting a good cross section of people and opinions, so as long as you know that up front you shouldn't have any trouble.

By andee — On May 26, 2011

The information that companies receive from focus groups can be invaluable for their sales and marketing. When I have been a participant, the focus group questions are usually very direct and to the point.

Usually you will be asked a series of questions before you are chosen for the group to make sure you fit the right demographics they are looking for. If you do not like to share personal information or your opinion, you will not like focus groups.

They must find people who in are certain income levels, political parties, age brackets, etc. You must be comfortable giving this information before you will be asked to be a part of the group.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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