A focus group is a small, but demographically diverse group of people and whose reactions are studied especially in market research or political analysis in guided or open discussions about a new product or something else to determine the reactions that can be expected from a larger population. It is a form of qualitative research consisting of interviews in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. During this process, the researcher either takes notes or records the vital points he or she is getting from the group. Researchers should select members of the focus group carefully for effective and authoritative responses.
Focus groups have a long history and were used[by whom?] during the Second World War (1939-1945) to examine the effectiveness of propaganda. Associate director sociologist Robert K. Merton set up focus groups at the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the USA prior to 1976. Psychologist and marketing expert Ernest Dichter coined the term "focus group" itself before his death in 1991.
Use in disciplines
Library and information science
In library and information science, when the library intends to work on its collection, the library consults the users who are the reason the library was established. This is an important process in meeting the needs of the users.
In the social sciences and urban planning, focus groups allow interviewers to study people in a more natural conversation pattern than typically occurs in a one-to-one interview. In combination with participant observation, they can be used for learning about groups and their patterns of interaction. An advantage is their fairly low cost compared to surveys, as one can get results relatively quickly and increase the sample size of a report by talking with several people at once. Another advantage is that they can be used as an occasion for participants to learn from one another as they exchange and build on one another's views, so that the participants can experience the research as an enriching encounter. This counteracts the extractive nature of research which seeks to "mine" participants for data (with no benefit for them) as criticized by various authors, and in particular Indigenous-oriented authors (and others sharing similar sentiments), as explained, for example, by Romm (2015): http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2087.
In the world of marketing, focus groups are seen as an important tool for acquiring feedback regarding new products, as well as various other topics. In marketing, focus groups are usually used in the early stages of product or concept development, when organizations are trying to create an overall direction for marketing initiative. In particular, focus groups allow companies wishing to develop, package, name, or test market a new product, to discuss, view, and/or test the new product before it is made available to the public. This can provide valuable information about the potential market acceptance of the product.
A focus group is an interview, conducted by a trained moderator among a small group of respondents. The interview is conducted in an informal and natural way where respondents are free to give views from any aspect. Focus groups are similar to, but should not be confused with in-depth interviews. The moderator uses a discussion guide that has been prepared in advance of the focus group to guide the discussion. Generally the discussion goes from overall impressions of a brand or product category and becomes more specific as the discussion progresses.
Participants are recruited on the basis of similar demographics, psychographics, buying attitudes, or behaviors.
Representatives of the stake holder (often a design team in the case of testing acceptance on a new product) are not involved in the focus group, not to bias the exercise. However they may attend the focus group, either through video cameras, or by watching through a one way mirror.
Traditional focus groups can provide accurate information, and are less expensive than other forms of traditional marketing research. There can be significant costs however: if a product is to be marketed on a nationwide basis, it would be critical to gather respondents from various locales throughout the country since attitudes about a new product may vary due to geographical considerations. This would require a considerable expenditure in travel and lodging expenses. Additionally, the site of a traditional focus group may or may not be in a locale convenient to a specific client, so client representatives may have to incur travel and lodging expenses as well.
- In usability engineering, a focus group is a survey method to collect the feedback of users on software or a website. This marketing method can be applied to computer products to better understand the motivations of users and their perception of the product. Unlike other methods of ergonomics, focus group implies several participants: users or future users of the application. The focus group can only collect subjective data, not objective data on the use of the application as the usability test for example.
Variants of focus groups include:
- Two-way focus group - one focus group watches another focus group and discusses the observed interactions and conclusion
- Dual moderator focus group - one moderator ensures the session progresses smoothly, while another ensures that all the topics are covered
- Dueling moderator focus group (fencing-moderator) - two moderators deliberately take opposite sides on the issue under discussion
- Respondent moderator focus group - one and only one of the respondents is asked to act as the moderator temporarily
- Client participant focus groups - one or more client representatives participate in the discussion, either covertly or overtly
- Mini focus groups - groups are composed of four or five members rather than 6 to 12
- Teleconference focus groups - telephone network is used
- Creativity groups
- Band obsessive group
- Online focus groups - computers connected via the internet are used
- Phone/ web focus groups - live group conducted over the phone and online with 6 to 8 participants
- Group discussion produces data and insights that would be less accessible without interaction found in a group setting—listening to others’ verbalized experiences stimulates memories, ideas, and experiences in participants. This is also known as the group effect where group members engage in "a kind of ‘chaining’ or ‘cascading’ effect; talk links to, or tumbles out of, the topics and expressions preceding it" (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 182)
- Group members discover a common language to describe similar experiences. This enables the capture of a form of "native language" or "vernacular speech" to understand the situation
- Focus groups also provide an opportunity for disclosure among similar others in a setting where participants are validated. For example, in the context of workplace bullying, targeted employees often find themselves in situations where they experience lack of voice and feelings of isolation. Use of focus groups to study workplace bullying therefore serve as both an efficacious and ethical venue for collecting data (see, e.g., Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006)
Problems and criticism
A fundamental difficulty with focus groups (and other forms of qualitative research) is the issue of observer dependency: the results obtained are influenced by the researcher or his or her own reading of the group's discussion, raising questions of validity (see experimenter's bias). Focus groups are "One shot case studies" especially if they are measuring a property-disposition relationship within the social sciences, unless they are repeated. Focus groups can create severe issues of external validity, especially the reactive effects of the testing arrangement. Other common (and related) criticism involve groupthink and social desirability bias.
Another issue is with the setting itself. If the focus groups are held in a laboratory setting with a moderator who is a professor and the recording instrument is obtrusive, the participants may either hold back on their responses and/or try to answer the moderator's questions with answers the participants feel that the moderator wants to hear. Another issue with the focus group setting is the lack of anonymity. With all of the other participants, there can not be any guarantee of confidentiality.
Douglas Rushkoff argues that focus groups are often useless, and frequently cause more trouble than they are intended to solve, with focus groups often aiming to please rather than offering their own opinions or evaluations, and with data often cherry picked to support a foregone conclusion. Rushkoff cites the disastrous introduction of New Coke in the 1980s as a vivid example of focus group design, implementation and analysis gone bad.
Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of industrial design, also said that Apple had found a good reason not to do focus groups: "They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products." 
The analysis of focus group data presents both challenges and opportunities when compared to other types of qualitative data. Some authors have suggested that data should be analysed in the same manner as interview data, while others have suggested that the unique features of focus group data – particularly the opportunity that it provides to observe interactions between group members - means that distinctive forms of analysis should be used. Data analysis can take place at the level of the individual or the group.
Focus group data provides the opportunity to analyse the strength with which an individual holds an opinion. If they are presented with opposing opinions or directly challenged, the individual may either modify their position or defend it. Bringing together all the comments that an individual makes in order can enable the researcher to determine whether their view changes in the course of discussion and, if so, further examination of the transcript may reveal which contributions by other focus group members brought about the change.
At the collective level, focus group data can sometimes reveal shared understandings or common views. However, there is a danger that a consensus can be assumed when not every person has spoken: the researcher will need to consider carefully whether the people who have not expressed a view can be assumed to agree with the majority, or whether they may simply be unwilling to voice their disagreement.
United States government
The United States federal government makes extensive use of focus groups to assess public education materials and messages for their many programs. While many of these are appropriate for the purpose, many others are reluctant compromises which federal officials have had to make as a result of studies independent of whether a focus group is the best or even appropriate methodology.
Swedish artist Måns Wrange has used the concept of the focus group in his work The Good Rumor Project. In this instance the focus group situation is used not only as a means to investigate the opinions of the group members, but also to spread an idea (the rumor) across society with the help of the group members.
Various creative activity-oriented questions can serve as supplements to verbal questions including but not limited to the following:
- Free listings- participants produce a list of all elements of a domain
- Rating- participants have a list of items which must be rated on a scale, typically using numbers or adjectives
- Ranking- participants can either receive a list of items to rank according to a specified dimension or participants can combine items in pairs to compare elements in the pairs
- Pile sorting- participants sort cards representing elements of a domain into piles according to their similarities and differences
- Picture sort- Participants are distributed selected pictures from magazines or photographs to sort through, finding matches of a definite characteristic or that best represent a certain category
- Magic tools and fantasy- the moderator can literally or symbolically pass around a "magical" tool to each participant as he or she shares a fantasy, dream, or idea
- Storytelling- participants create a narrative around the topic of interest to make others think about a solution to a problem, gauge reactions to a situation, and observe attitudes towards the topic under study
- Role-playing- participants demonstrate through action how they would behave or act in a situation, how they would solve a problem, or deal with a difficulty
- Sentence completion- participants are given printed out partial sentences on a topic to complete and share within a group
- Collage- a moderator assigns a theme and then distributes print materials to participants (who are divided into small groups), so they can use these materials, drawings, and their own words to create a relevant collage.
- Comparison of usability evaluation methods
- Crowd manipulation
- Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM)
- Idea networking (How to collate ideas)
- Innovation game
- Customer advisory council
- Spin (public relations)
- Usability engineering
- Washington County Closed-Circuit Educational Television Project
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Focus groups have a long history and were used during the Second World War to examine the effectiveness of propaganda (Merton and Kendall, 1946).
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- Lynne Ames (August 2, 1998). "The View From/Peekskill; Tending the Flame of a Motivator". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 6, 2017.
- Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. 1999. Designing Qualitative Research. 3rd Ed. London: Sage Publications, p. 115
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- Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Tracy, S. J., Lutgen-Sandvik, P., & Alberts, J. K. (2006). Nightmares, demons and slaves: Exploring the painful metaphors of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 148-185.
- Nachmais, Chava Frankfort; Nachmais, David. 2008. Research methods in the Social Sciences: Seventh Edition New York, NY: Worth Publishers
- Campbell, Donald T., Stanley, Juilian C. Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally
- Rushkoff, Douglas, Get back in the box : innovation from the inside out, New York : Collins, 2005
- Jary, Simon (July 2, 2009). "Apple's Ive reveals design secrets". Macworld U.K. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
- Harding, Jamie. Qualitative Data Analysis from Start to Finish. p. 150. ISBN 978-0-85702-138-0.
- Harding, Jamie. 2013. Qualitative Data Analysis from Start to Finish London, SAGE Publishers
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- "Måns Wrange". www.manswrange.com. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
- Colucci, Erminia (December 2007). "Focus groups can be fun": The use of activity-oriented questions in focus group discussions". Qualitative Health Research. 17 (10): 1422–1433. Archived from the original on 2018-05-09.
- Focus Groups at Usability.gov
- Focus Group Principles (archived) American Marketing Association
- Dos and don'ts for using marketing focus groups (archived) Microsoft