How to Write Questions for a Focus Group

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Focus groups are planned discussions designed to elicit specific information, thoughts or opinions from a targeted group of people. The comments you elicit from the focus group depend in large part on the preparation work you put into developing and asking the questions.

Determine the objectives of the focus group. Whether you are planning your own focus group discussion or for a sponsor, it is very important to be clear about what you want the focus group to accomplish. This will guide the development of your focus group questions. Answering the following questions may help with this step: 1) How will the information from the focus groups be used; 2) What will it be used for; 3) Who will use the information; 4) What new, if any, information do you want to get from the focus group?

Review what information is already known about the topic, if any. This step really depends on the type of information that you hope to get from the focus groups. If this a relatively unexplored topic, there may not be information available for review. For other topics, review relevant sources about the topic. For instance, if you want to know what high school students think about climate change, do an Internet search to see what others have reported about their findings. You can use other findings to make your questions more specific or perhaps other work can reveal a relatively untapped area that you hadn't considered. The bottom line is to make sure that you have a basis for asking each focus group question, especially if you plan to report your findings in peer-reviewed scientific publications.

Develop an initial focus group question draft. Based on the steps above, generate a list of focus group questions that address the information that you're interested in. At this stage, concentrate on insuring that the most important concepts are captured in the questions. Since most focus group discussions last 60 to 90 minutes, your final draft should be five or six questions. However, while writing your initial draft, there is no limit -- you're just trying to capture the information.

Get feedback about the initial focus group questions draft. Give your initial draft to the sponsors or other team members. Get their thoughts on which questions capture the essence of the focus group objectives. This step is important in ensuring that your questions have face validity -- whether they make sense on the surface for what you're trying to accomplish.

Refine your focus group questions. Use the feedback from others to refine your questions and get the list down to five or six questions. Use only open-ended questions, those in which the answer is not a simple yes or no or other short answer. Questions should proceed from general to specific. For instance, using the climate change example above, your first question could be, "What have you heard about global warming?" The goal of the initial question is to get the participants thinking about the topic and will also provide some insight into how the participants view the topic or what has influenced their views. Include prompts (key words or phrases to hone in on a particular concept) for focus group questions where you anticipate people will need help gathering their thoughts. For instance, a prompt for the initial question, "What have you heard about global warming?" might be, "In the news," or, "From your parents or other adults?"

Get endorsement for your focus group questions. After you have refined the focus group questions, let the sponsor or other team members review them again. Make modifications as necessary.

Prepare your moderator's guide. The moderator's guide is the "script" that your focus group moderator or facilitator will use. In addition to the focus group questions, it can include any other information that should be shared during the focus groups, such as ground rules for the discussion.


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