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Guide to Moderating Focus Groups

Greenbaum, Thomas L. 2000. Sage Publications, Inc.
H 61.28 G73 2000

Focus groups Introduction

A qualitative research technique involving groups of 7 to 10 people, recruited on the basis of similar demographics, psychographics, buying attitudes, or behavior, who engage in a discussion, led by a trained moderator, of a particular topic.

  • Held in a facility where a one-way mirror exists to permit observers to watch the session
  • Conducted by an objective, external, trained facilitator
  • Composed of 7 to 10 people (or 4 to 6) who were recruited on the basis of common characteristics
  • Implemented using a discussion guide that has been prepared in advance to ensure that the appropriate topics are covered in the session and that the proper amount of time is allocated to each
  • Executed in such a way that the participants interact with each other both verbally and nonverbally
  • Contain a vehicle for the observers to communicate with the moderator during the session to ensure that the process is interactive between both parties
  • Conducted in an environment that is conducive to all participants’ giving their complete attention to the discussion topics for the entire session

Focus groups used to understand the “why” behind a behavior.

Role of the Monitor

  • Strategic Consultant and Planner
  • Content Manager
  • Project Coordinator/Implementer
  • Facilitator
  • Analyst/Communicator

Screening Questionnaire/process

  • Introduction – basic background questions
  • Security & participation section – weed out participants who’ve recently participated or who have a vested interest in the subject matter
  • Series of attitude & behavioral questions
  • Demographic summary
  • Articulation question – used to filter participants who will have trouble participating due to language or other debilitations
  • Invitation – if they pass the above criteria

Recruiting Process

  • Homogeneity is important for group discussions
  • In most situations it’s important to not cross generation lines within a group. Wide differences in age will not be conducive to good group discussion.
  • Sometimes it’s advisable to separate males and females within a group. (especially with teenagers)
  • It’s generally advantageous to have people in the same group who have relatively similar experiences with the product or practice in question.
  • Homogeneity also helps the analysis since you don’t have to spend time focusing on individual results relating to their particular circumstances
  • Re-screen participants on the day of the groups to ensure you’re getting who signed up
  • Recruit more people than you need to offset no-shows

Pre & Post group briefings

Viewers should arrive 45 minutes early to avoid contact with participants

Pre-group briefing with observers:

  • Reiterate the research objective
  • Overview of where we are in the research process
  • Overview of the recruitment process and the characteristics of the participants—including why they were selected, the process used to recruit, the amount of money participants are receiving, anticipated # of participants
  • Administrative details (food, bathrooms, be quiet, etc.)
  • Process for communications during the group (no notes or interruptions into the group allowed)
  • Tips for observing (talking to a minimum, keep big picture in mind, listen don’t write, keep open mind)
  • Three-part review of the discussion guide
    • Guide’s role in the discussion including how tangents will work
    • Flow and content of the guide, identifying when the moderator may come into the back to check in
    • Explanation of the external stimuli to be used
  • Revisions or additions to the guide
  • Questions from the observers

Post-group briefing

  • Keep it brief, 15-20 minutes
  • Important for the first two groups especially so changes can be made if necessary
  • Moderator must maintain posture of objectivity
  • Make sure observers are comfortable with the approach being used

Discussion Guide

  1. Facilitates communication between the organization and the moderator
  2. Directs the flow of the conversation during the group
  3. Predetermines the structure of the final report
  4. Written in outline form


  1. Introduction
  • Moderator introducing herself—not as a category expert
  • General purpose of the group
  • Administrative details of the proceedings, including the purpose of the one-way mirror
  • Introduction of participants to group
  • Data Collection
    • Brief written exercises (10 minutes)
      • Awareness and attitudes; importance of characteristics of subject; history of contact with subject
      • Author recommends this over waiting room questionnaires
  • Warm-Up Discussion (ice breaker)
  • Subsequent discussion sections
      • At least half of the group time
  • Advice to the president
      • Final section
      • What if the president were to come in and ask for 30 seconds of advice regarding the topic?
      • Group members to write down what they think would be a good idea

    External Stimuli

    Participants can be much more helpful if they’re asked to respond to a tangible stimulus (like a picture) instead of to verbal descriptions.

    Types of external stimuli (not complete)

    • Written product descriptions/concept statements
      • Read then comment
    • Product or packaging samples
    • Ads / Storyboards
    • Promotional concepts
    • Live Internet
    • Written exercises

      Showing several different ideas

      • The order in which they’re presented should be rotated from one group to the next
      • The concepts should be presented individually but sequentially, with no discussion, and participants writing their comments between ideas.
      • Use an exercise that will polarize the people in the group relative to the various ideas before the discussion commences.
        • i.e. write down which presentation you relate the most to and the least to.
        • Use this procedure for each idea before discussing

        Moderating Fundamentals

        • Recommends that the moderator not enter the group room until the session is ready to start
        • Establish the rules
          • Only one person talking at a time
          • Participants should speak loudly to be heard and recorded
          • Rules on food and drink
          • Rules on beepers and cell phones
        • Make use of name tags
        • Before group inform titled people that we’ll be using first names and then ask for that
        • Take notes on the discussion guide
        • Use quantitative scales to help polarize the participants
        • It’s important that the moderator not have a point of view regarding the outcome of the group
        • Use “write-down” exercises to make sure all group members have their say
        • Don’t let one individual dominate the discussion
        • Interesting discussion for removing intolerable participant

        Advanced Moderation Techniques

        Write-down exercises

        • First thoughts and overall ratings—used to top of mind reactions
          • Description; overall reaction (10pt scale); first thoughts
        • Importance of characteristics (including explanation why characteristic is important to the participant)
          • Characteristic; overall rating (10pt scale); comments
        • Preference rating

        Position-fixing exercises—used to lock participants into a POV

        • “Write down your impression of this new idea (that has been generated by the group)” (10pt scale)

        Energizing exercises (used when people are getting bored)

        • “Write down the name of a car you identify with this concept and a short sentence why.”
        • Select the animal most closely associated with the product
        • Comparing foods (hamburger vs. steak)
        • Select the color most closely associated with the product
        • Tell a short story about the product, making the product into a real person. What kind of person is it in terms of marital and family status, interests, personality traits, and other characteristics?